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   Vol.65/No.9            March 5, 2001 
Clinton's pardon of Rich sparks controversy
Over the past few weeks a major controversy has erupted in U.S. politics over William Clinton's decision in his last day as president to pardon billionaire fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich. Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in New York have opened a criminal investigation into the pardon. High profile hearings are taking place in both houses of Congress. And Clinton himself, in a highly unusual move right after stepping down from the presidency, released a major Op-Ed column for the New York Times in defense of his pardon decisions.

The debate around this pardon with its increasingly strident tone has become the latest flash point in the factional disputes in bourgeois politics in the United States. Clinton, who remains the central figure in the Democratic Party even though his presidency is over, has been sharply criticized by liberal Democrats for the pardons. Many Republicans and rightists are taking advantage of the Rich pardon to hypocritically paint themselves as the bearers of morals and ethics as opposed to liberals.

The criminal investigation was initiated by Mary Jo White, the United States attorney in New York and head of the office that indicted Rich in 1983. Grand jury subpoenas will be issued for bank records and other documents in an effort to show that the pardon was issued in exchange for a bribe in the form of huge contributions by Rich's ex-wife Denise of $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library Fund.
Congressional hearings
The House Government Reform Committee has scheduled its second hearing for March 1 with several of Clinton's former advisers scheduled to testify, which may include Bush administration official Lewis Libby, vice president Richard Cheney's chief of staff and formerly a lawyer for Rich. Citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination, Denise Rich has refused to answer questions before the congressional committee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Spector, a Republican from Pennsylvania, suggested that the Senate Judiciary Committee might ask Clinton to testify about the pardons.

Rich and his business associate Pincus Green, who was also pardoned, fled to Switzerland in 1983 after conducting what the Washington Post said was "the largest tax evasion scheme in U.S. history." Federal prosecutors in New York accused them of 50 counts of racketeering, and fraud, and evading $48 million in taxes. The Belgian-born Rich, who grew up in the United States and has since renounced his U.S. citizenship, holds Israeli and Spanish citizenship.

Rich set up his own foundation in Israel and over the past 20 years has donated around $100 million to Israeli hospitals, museums, and other charitable efforts. According to the New York Times, he also worked closely with Mossad, the Israeli secret police. Among those sending letters backing Rich's pardon was Shabtai Shavit, who was chief of Mossad from 1989 to 1996.

In pardoning Rich, Clinton failed to follow the normal procedure of fully consulting with the Justice Department prior to granting a pardon. According to a Justice Department figure testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the department was not even informed of the impending pardon until shortly after midnight on January 20.

Clinton's pardon of Rich was one of 140 he issued January 20, along with 36 commuted sentences. Many of these individuals had political and personal connections to the White House, and themselves became quite wealthy through embezzling clients, tax evasion, and bribery. One not included on the list despite an active campaign by his supporters for clemency was Leonard Peltier, a Native American rights fighter who was convicted in 1975 on the frame-up charge of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During his eight years in office Clinton granted approximately 450 pardons and commutations.

A president's pardon authority is unreviewable. In fact, it's been a common practice for governors and presidents to issue pardons to their friends, and other well-to-do people convicted of various crimes. Bush cabinet appointees, former governors Christine Whitman from New Jersey and Thomas Thompson from Wisconsin, each issued a raft of pardons for well-placed and well-to-do people before leaving office. Clinton in his Op-Ed column pointed to Gerald Ford's pardon of former president Richard Nixon, and former president George Bush's pardon in the early 1990s of former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, among others.

At the congressional inquiry several Republican congressmen backed the initiation of a criminal investigation of Clinton's action. A number of Democrats, including long-time backers of the former president, also jumped ship and joined in sharp criticism of Clinton's pardon of Rich.

A column in the National Review, signed by "Democrat X," said Democrats who jumped ship, no longer seeing any political advantage in defending a now former president, include many "who most reflexively defended Clinton's past ethical lapses, most notably the Lewinsky scandal."

The column said that "there is something else going on here, at least on the left wing of the Democratic party: a desire to separate Democrats from both Clinton's personal failings and from his distinctive policy orientation--to 'get over' both Clinton and Clintonism." This wing of the Democratic Party came out of the elections looking to "the future, and the claim that a Gore-style [populist] message--some whisper, with a better messenger--is a sure winner in 2004."

Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said, "The pardoning of fugitives stands our criminal justice system on its head and makes a mockery of it."

William Daley, who was secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and also chairman of Albert Gore's presidential campaign, described the pardon as, "terrible, devastating, and it's rather appalling." He added, "Bush ran on bringing dignity back, and I think the actions by Clinton of the last couple of weeks are giving him a pretty good platform."

Sen. Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, stated, "It puts back into sharp focus all the questions about values and ethics in relation to the Clinton administration." Sen. Joseph Biden from Delaware added, "I just think it's totally indefensible."

In his Op-ed column, which appeared February 18, the former president wrote that there were substantial "legal and foreign policy reasons" for the Rich pardon, and that this decision, "was in the best interests of justice." He pointed out, "I am accustomed to the rough and tumble of politics, but the accusations made against me in this case have been particularly painful.... I made [this decision] on the merits as I saw them, and I take full responsibility for it"

Far from ending the dispute, Clinton's column led to a new round of criticisms. New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who as a U.S. attorney in 1983 prosecuted Rich, denounced Clinton's written defense, saying it "raises more questions than it answers." He said that Clinton "talked just to one side, got their view and totally ignored the view of even his own Justice Department"

The New York Times editors the following day wrote, "The story of this pardon begins and ends with money and the access afforded by money."

Calling Rich "an unsuitable candidate" for a pardon, they said, "Mr. Rich has defied the courts for years, and now he has been rewarded in a way that undermines respect for the law."

Conservative columnist William Safire described Rich's pardon as "the most flagrant abuse of the presidential pardon power in U.S. history." He wrote, "Having applauded [Clinton's] shamelessness through eight years, only hypocrites among his steadfast supporters can complain about his shaming the presidency on his way out."

A February 13 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Prisoners of Bill," sought to play up the criticisms of Clinton by other Democrats. The editors wrote, "Will the torment never cease? It's been three long weeks since Bill Clinton left the White House, and still the wails of agony, the cries of outrage and the shouts of denunciation continue. And that's from the former President's friends."

The Journal editors added, "The first step toward liberation from the Clintons is for Democrats to recognize the terms of their self-imprisonment. The only way to break free is for someone prominent to stand up and speak the truth about the Clintons' tawdry moral legacy and the party's complicity in it."
Related article:
How scandalmongering benefits ultrarightists  
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