The House Government Reform Committee opened hearings Thursday on President Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Ray Suarez talks with Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe and Rich Lowery of The National Review.
RAY SUAREZ: Today's hearing was the first in a Congressional probe into former President Clinton's controversial pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich. The 65-year-old financier was among the 140 individuals Bill Clinton pardoned during the final hours of his presidency. Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983 after being charged, with his colleague Pincus Green, for tax evasion, fraud, and illegal trading with Iran. Both men were indicted in absentia and never faced trial. Both received a full pardon. Today on Capitol Hill, members of the House Government Reform Committee asked witnesses to shed light on how and why Rich's pardon was granted.
REP. DAN BURTON: And we just want an explanation and I think the American people would like to know what happened. We don't know all the facts yet, and that's one of the main reasons we're here today. However, this much seems clear: There is a procedure that is usually followed for pardons and that in this case -- that procedure was not followed. There is a pardon attorney at the Justice Department, pardon applications are submitted to the pardon attorney for review. After they've been thoroughly reviewed the Justice Department then makes a recommendation, and the application is sent to the President for a decision. In this case, none of that happened.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: The Rich pardon is a bad precedent. It appears to set a double standard for the wealthy and the powerful, and it is an end run around the judicial process. Think about it for a minute: One week Marc Rich is on the Justice Department's list of the 10 most wanted; and the next week, he's given a presidential pardon. This makes no sense. Something has to happen in-between. They can't - this gap can't be bridged in just one big jump. But under the current system, the President is allowed to make bad judgments that all of us disagree with when he issues pardons. That's how the system works.
RAY SUAREZ: Jack Quinn, Rich's attorney, was once one of Bill Clinton's White House counsels. Quinn lobbied the Clinton administration for Rich's last- minute pardon. In his opening statements, he defended his actions.
JACK QUINN: I acted here as a lawyer who believes in the merits of the case that I made. I acted as a lawyer who vigorously and ethically pursued my client's interests as I'm required to do under the canons of ethics and I acted as a lawyer who followed a process that included, not excluded, the United States Department of Justice. I want to emphasize from the outset that the process I followed was one of transparency at both the Department of Justice and the White House. I remain to this day absolutely and unshakably convinced that the prosecutors constructed a legal house of cards in this indictment. At the heart of this case is a tax charge that I do believe is meritless.
RAY SUAREZ: One of the former prosecutors in the case, Sandy Weinberg, told the panel why he thought Marc Rich was not worthy of a pardon.
SANDY WEINBERG: We are here to express our outrage at the pardons of Mr. Rich and Mr. Green, who for the past 17 years have been international fugitives in what is the biggest tax fraud case in the history of the United States. As international fugitives who renounced their American citizenship in 1983 for the specific purpose of avoiding extradition on these charges, we do not believe that Mr. Rich or Mr. Green should have been candidates for pardon. We are particularly distressed because despite what Mr. Quinn has said today, it appears that the President received no input from anyone who had any knowledge of the particulars of this prosecution from the prosecution side. In truth, Mr. Rich and Mr. Green, in my opinion, have forfeited their right to question the merits of this case in their pardon application by becoming fugitives, by renouncing their citizenship, by having their companies plead guilty to the scheme 17 years ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Both Quinn and Weinberg were asked about political contributions made by Rich's former wife, Denise.
REP. DANNY DAVIS: Is there any reason for you to believe that there is any connection between the contributions that Mrs. Rich made and the ultimate decision to pardon her former husband?
JACK QUINN: None of the conversations I had with the President or anyone working at the White House or anyone in the Department of Justice gave... give me any reason to believe that this was decided on anything other than what the President thought to be the merits.
SANDY WEINBERG: I mean I have feelings but I obviously have no information. And the problem I have with all this is that it's the appearance -- I mean, you know, Mr. Quinn's intimacy with the President, you know, Mrs. Rich's contributions, in my opinion, the lack of any merit whatsoever in the application, the fact that he was a fugitive and had renounced his citizenship. I was asked, can I see any legitimate reason for the pardon? And the answer is no, I don't.
RAY SUAREZ: Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder was grilled over his role in the pardon. Some of the details he's giving contradict Jack Quinn.
ERIC HOLDER: In hindsight, I wish I had done some things differently with regard to the Marc Rich matter -- specifically I wish I had ensured that the Department of Justice was more fully informed and involved in this pardon process but let me be very clear, very clear, about one important fact. Efforts to portray me as intimately involved or overly interested in this matter are simply at odds with the facts -- in truth because the Marc Rich case did not stand out as one that was particularly merit or use and because there was a very large number of cases across my desk that fit into this category I never devoted a great deal of time to this matter; I and others at the Justice Department had nothing to gain or to lose by the decision in this matter. We had no professional, personal or financial relationship with Mr. Rich or anyone connected to him. And to the best of my knowledge, none of us ever saw the Rich pardon application. Indeed it is now clear-- and this is admittedly hindsight-- that we at the Justice Department and more importantly former President Clinton, the American public in the cause of justice would have been better served if the case had been handled through the normal channels.
RAY SUAREZ: Holder said he was swayed in part by a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recommending the Rich pardon. Republicans on the committee took Holder to task for not gathering more information about the case.
REP. BOB BARR: It's like Keystone Cops. But I don't think it is. I think the President knew exactly what he was doing. You didn't request information so you could probably say, "I don't know." In other words, have you ever heard of the concept of deliberate ignorance? Well, maybe not. Most prosecutors have.
ERIC HOLDER: I will stand here and have people say that I have made a mistake. I'll debate that. But you're now implying that I have done something that's essentially corrupt. And I will not accept that; that I will not accept. There is not -
REP. BOB BARR: You sit here and you tell us you don't know how the White House counsel works. You say, well, you told somebody to look into it. They didn't but that's okay. It was an unremarkable case. Your own prosecutors have said this was a very significant case, and you say based on one conversation with the White House counsel that mentions a foreign leader's name that you changed leaning favorable.
ERIC HOLDER: I said... what I said was if there were a foreign policy benefit that would come from the pardon, if, if, and I was leaving to them to make that determination.
RAY SUAREZ: Hearings on the Rich pardon are scheduled for next week in the Senate, where the committee chairman is considering calling former President Clinton as a witness.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, Oliphant and Lowry with some analysis of today's hearing in particular and the pardon story generally. Tom Oliphant of the "Boston Globe," and Rich Lowry of the "National Review." Well, Tom, the hearings stretched on into the evening, East Coast time, did anything... was anything generated in the sworn testimony that changes what we know of this story?
TOM OLIPHANT: No - is the short answer. This is the case that runs at the Congressional hearing level today more on, as you saw with Congressman Barr a second ago on inference than on evidence. It was an opportunity for those who disagree violently with the pardon to vent their views. But as an investigative event, I thought the most significant fact was the audience pretty much had deserted the room by mid afternoon.
RAY SUAREZ: Rich Lowry, what was the lead of the day for you?
RICH LOWRY: Well, I don't know whether there was a big news lead but this is interesting, I think, as a classic Washington buck- passing operation where you've had Bill Clinton go before the cameras and say, well, you know what? I was relying on Jack Quinn's advice. So he's saying by implication this is all Jack Quinn's fault if anything went wrong here. And you have Jack Quinn saying look guys I'm a lawyer; it's my job to represent odious people and odious causes and what happens here is Eric Holder didn't stop this pardon from happening so by implication he's saying it's Eric holder's fault. And then today you had Eric Holder testifying that essentially he didn't pay very much attention to this and didn't realize the President was about to pardon an international fugitive so it's not his fault either. So you have this tremendous miscarriage of justice at least as presented by -- the prosecutors argue it's a miscarriage of justice with no one taking any responsibility for it whatsoever. It's really a classic Washington dynamic at work.
RAY SUAREZ: But along, Rich, with members from both parties conceding that this was a flawed process and a flawed pardon, they were also conceding the almost absolute pardon power of the President. So what are the hearings for?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it is an absolute power in the sense that it can't be contravened by any other branches of the government. But that doesn't mean that it can't be abused. It was clearly abused in this case. You had even Henry Waxman saying it was inexcusable. It's an extremely corrosive thing if power is abused without any sort of accountability or consequences. Now of course there's no direct remedy for this. Except for a very public airing of the facts and the embarrassment of the people who are responsible from this, from Bill Clinton on down. And I do think Jack Quinn and Eric Holder are both extremely embarrassed today and rightfully so.
RAY SUAREZ: Is that what we were watching, Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: I don't think embarrassed is an evidentiary concept. Jack Quinn represented his client. The pardon is certainly controversial. Most people disagree with it. But where I think some historical perspective can help here is that I think this hearing isn't an unusual thing at all. It's an entirely normal event for an abnormal pardon. And every once in a while these things pop up, and something like what we saw today on the Hill, which does serve the purpose of allowing people to air their differences, occurs. It happened after Gerry Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. There were similar reactions after President Bush on the way out of office short-circuited the Iran-Contra case with pardons. Bill Clinton ran into a buzz saw of criticism because he pardoned some Puerto Rican nationals who... nationalists who had been involved in bombing crimes many years ago. Jimmy Carter ran into it on amnesty for Vietnam protesters. Ronald Reagan pardoned without... Presidents who use the pardon power to resolve cases are the ones who tend to create controversy by their actions. And in almost all the cases, politics of one kind or another, influence of one kind or another is in the background of their decision. So in that context, what Burton did with this hearing is not unusual in a historical context at all. They tend not to last. People... in other words, Bill Clinton, whether you agree or disagree, did not pardon Marc Rich in the sense of forgiving him. He paid his debt to society, et cetera, et cetera. He did it to resolve the case which otherwise would have gone on unresolved forever. You could argue that it should go on unresolved forever, but I think the facts as they've come out in the last couple of days are not quite the same facts we were dealing with two weeks ago.
RAY SUAREZ: But was it useful to get out the legal arguments behind this as well on the record today?
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. Look, what always interests me both about trials and about hearings is that even when there's a partisan atmosphere in the background, you have an opportunity for people to come and tell you what they did and how they feel about what somebody else did. And there's no question that there was a little additional light shed on that today, as has been the case when there's been controversy about this unusual exercise of the pardon power in the past. It is by its nature controversial.
RAY SUAREZ: Rich Lowry, it's been unsure on the House side whether they're going to continue with this. Chairman Burton threatened to bring Denise Rich in to the hearing room and grant her immunity because she's taken the fifth. What kind of shape is this in as it gets handed on to the Senate?
RICH LOWRY: Ray, I'm not sure how much further they can take this. Denise Rich's role in this, of course, is very interesting and bears further scrutiny. She initially said she had nothing to do with the pardon. She lied. It turned out she had actually written President Clinton a letter urging him to pardon her former husband. But if I could ... I'm not sure how much more we're going to learn; I'm not sure whether there's going to be a quid pro quo or anything of that nature proven. That's very difficult to do. But if I could go back to what Tom was saying -- not all pardons are this controversial. I mean, pardons are typically used as a symbolic gesture for someone who has already paid their debt to society or they're used to pardon people like these low-level drug offenders that Clinton pardoned a couple dozen of those who have been punished too harshly. There's no indication that that was the case with Marc Rich. He was an international fugitive. He evaded paying about $48 million worth of taxes. No matter what Jack Quinn says, that was a crime in the early 1980s. It was a crime in the 1990s and it's a crime now. You can't make millions of dollars worth of profits and then hide it from the government and then launder it overseas. That is illegal. And this was an abuse of the pardon often power.
RAY SUAREZ: He still faces civil penalties though, doesn't he?
RICH LOWRY: That's meaningless -- as the prosecutors argued today. Look, I mean I think it's very useful to have Jack Quinn and Eric Holder dragged out into the sunlight in this. Jack Quinn pretty clearly violated the executive order he drafted against administration official leaving the administration and then subsequently lobbying the same administration. Now he says there was an exception that made it okay for him to do this. But that exception goes basically to court cases and judicial matters and a Presidential pardon is an executive matter.
RAY SUAREZ: A quick final comment.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, actually, I don't believe that's all of what Jack Quinn did and I think that what you're still left with is a situation where you have a normal use of an abnormal pardon. And that is why Presidents from Gerry Ford right through Bill Clinton create controversies. There's always a reason for it.
RICH LOWRY: Tom, that's double speak. A normal use of....
TOM OLIPHANT: People who bypass…
RICH LOWRY: You sound like Eric Holder.
TOM OLIPHANT: People who bypass... It has only happened four or five or six times. Every time this process is bypassed, a President says he did it to resolve the case, not to forgive someone's action. And that is the context in which Bill Clinton acted. Most people disagree like they did on Nixon.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom Oliphant, Rich Lowry -
RICH LOWRY: And no purpose was served was ending this process.
RAY SUAREZ: Thank you both.