President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich is a saga of secrecy, tenacity, sleight of hand and pressure from Rich's ex-wife and one of her friends, who together have steered millions of dollars to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's causes and those of fellow Democrats.
Whether it is a story of bribery as well or illegal gifts from abroad is the subject of congressional inquiries and a criminal investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in New York.
Behind the pardon is a tale of intrigue, unintentional humor and celebrity involving, among others, two former Israeli prime ministers, a onetime operative for the Mossad, a stubborn U.S. attorney and a misunderstood desire to find a rabbi in the White House.
New interviews in Israel and an examination of e-mails and documents in the hands of investigators as well as testimony before congressional committees show that Rich, 65, perhaps the wealthiest fugitive in the world, mounted an immense effort to persuade the Justice Department and then the president to cut a deal and let him come home.
Justice was skeptical, but Clinton agreed. What he got in the deal was a pledge that Rich would waive a statute-of-limitations defense should an agency, such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Energy Department, sue him for civil fraud. But experts say such a suit is unlikely. Moreover, Rich runs businesses valued at $30 billion and would not be likely to feel the pain of any financial judgment against him.
Many things about the Rich pardon are still a mystery. So far, however, this is the story of the deal that Bill Clinton did not refuse. It is marked by ongoing protest and bitterness, best symbolized, perhaps, by the fact that, as of late Saturday, a full 28 days after Clinton granted Rich his pardon, federal officials still had not removed his wanted poster from their international crime alert Web site.
On the (posh) lamThe saga began in the fall of 1999. Rich was No. 6 on the government's list of most wanted fugitives. The mug shot on his wanted poster showed his thinning black hair. He had been on the lam, albeit a posh one, for 16 years, ever since his 1983 indictment by a grand jury on more than 50 counts of wire fraud, racketeering, trading with the enemy and evading more than $48 million in income taxes.
The government accused him of conspiring with Iran in 1980 to purchase over 6 million barrels of oil, in violation of a trade embargo imposed by the United States because Iran was holding 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Payments for the oil, federal agents said, were made fraudulently through American banks and by the illegal use of American telecommunications facilities.
Rich was an American. His father, a Holocaust refugee from Belgium, made burlap bags in New York. Young Rich dropped out of New York University to make a fortune as a broker in commodities. He married Denise Eisenberg, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. With the indictment imminent, Rich, his wife and his trusted partner, Pincus Green, decamped to Zug, a bucolic burg south of Zurich, Switzerland. He refused to return to the United States and surrender to authorities for trial, and Switzerland refused to extradite him. The Riches lived in magnificent exile, protected by security guards from Israel, while Rich ran enterprises that brokered oil, gold, sugar, grain, aluminum and nickel.
He even sold copper to the U.S. mint until lawmakers found out about it.
Despite these ties, Rich steered clear of the United States. Just leaving Switzerland was risky. U.S. marshals nearly nabbed him on quick trips to London and Helsinki. He shunned reporters and was known to duck out bathroom windows to escape them. In addition to his holdings in Zug, he bought a seaside estate on the Spanish coast and renounced his citizenship in favor of dual citizenship in Switzerland and Spain. By then, Rich had made large charitable contributions in both countries that made it unlikely he would ever be extradited.
Marriage in exile went badly. Denise Rich told New York magazine that her husband had taken up with another woman. The Riches divorced bitterly. Denise Rich returned to New York and resumed songwriting, which she had pursued in fits and starts since college. She wrote hit songs for artists including Bette Midler and Aretha Franklin. In 1993, she was introduced to President Clinton.
After the Kenneth W. Starr report was released in 1998, Clinton made one of his first public appearances at her apartment for a fund-raiser. It netted $3 million by one account, $4 million by another.
Casting about for helpBack in Zug, Marc Rich had been putting out feelers. William A. Wilson, who was President Reagan's friend and ambassador to the Vatican, began asking questions about his case. The State Department warned him off. In 1995, the department balked again, according to the New York Times, when the Israelis asked that the United States allow Rich to travel more freely without fear of being arrested.
He had not been able to attend the funeral of his father. By now one of his daughters, in her late 20s and in New York with her mother, was dying of leukemia. Prosecutors who had indicted Rich under former U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani, now the mayor of New York, rebuffed his efforts to see her.
By the end of 1999, Rich wanted it all to end.
His lawyers insisted he had a strong defense. He claimed he was a victim of anti-Semitism and Giuliani's overzealous prosecution. If so, why not return with Green and stand trial?
"Considering the amount of publicity the affair has received so far and the amount of attention we would get if we took this step, it would be very risky for us," he told an Israeli magazine that October in a rare interview. "And I do not want to take this risk."
Instead, the congressional records show, Rich wanted to work out a deal with Mary Jo White, who had succeeded Giuliani as U.S. attorney.
He hired Jack Quinn, a lawyer and Washington lobbyist who had been Vice President Al Gore's counsel, then his chief of staff. In 1994, Quinn was drafted by Clinton to be his White House counsel. Quinn had served for two years, then returned to the powerhouse law firm of Arnold & Porter. For $400,000, Quinn began working the phones. He told everyone Rich's defense had merit. Then he called Eric H. Holder Jr., who was Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's top deputy, and asked a favor. Could Holder set up a meeting between him and Mary Jo White's people in New York?
Although Rich's case was notorious in New York City, Holder had never heard of him. He asked an aide to set up the meeting.
White's office would not budge. They were not interested.
The U.S. attorney herself was blunt. "Impossible," White wrote to Quinn several weeks later. "It is our firm policy not to negotiate dispositions of criminal charges with fugitives." There was only one option: a presidential pardon.
Quinn had nearly unparalleled access to Clinton and the decision-makers who surrounded him. He and Rich's other lawyers and advocates began writing letters to allies. They culled lists of potential advocates and plotted strategy. Who would make the strongest cases for their client?
They sought advice from Denise Rich, who agreed to help -- for the sake of her children, she said. By now she had made nearly $1.4 million in various political contributions to Democrats, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. Among her gifts were $450,000 for the Clinton library, $10,000 for Clinton's legal defense fund and a pair of coffee tables and chairs worth $7,375.
The team collected photographs of Rich, like ones taken a few months earlier showing him with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a Swiss ambassador and other luminaries at a reception in Rich's honor at the Tel Aviv museum. It helped that Rich had embraced Israel with his heart -- and his checkbook.
The Riches had been doling out money to Jewish causes "from before the establishment of the state [of Israel], first by my father and later on by me," he told Israel's Haaretz newspaper in late 1999. "I am a Jew, and Jews are important to me. I always thought the state of Israel was very important to Jews and to the whole world in general. I always wanted to help."
When Jerusalem's Sha'arei Tzedek Hospital needed medical equipment, Rich donated $1.1 million. When the Israel Museum wanted to open a new wing, Rich obliged with an additional $1.4 million. And when Israel's leaders needed money to help integrate new immigrants or to pay for young Jews to visit the country, Rich willingly picked up the tab.
Over two decades, Rich had, by some estimates, donated more than $30 million to various causes in Israel.
Now the people who came forward to help him could have filled several pages of Who's Who in Israel. They included Peres, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and a host of other high government officials on the left. Jerusalem Mayor Ehug Olmert topped a list of rightist politicians who supported a pardon.
Even Zubin Mehta, maestro of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, weighed in on Rich's behalf.
Quinn and his team gathered letters attesting to Rich's generous contributions. With cany sleight of hand, in some cases the team neglected to mention that the letters would be included in a thick book to be sent to the White House to help seek a pardon.
Shulamit Aloni, a former culture minister, said she knew nothing about Rich, even though his charitable foundations routinely funded her pet projects involving the opera, theater and women's rights. She said she was asked by a Rich representative to write about "all the beautiful things" his foundations had done.
"If I knew the letter was going to be used this way," she said, "I would have forbidden it."
Barak's support was knowing and fulsome. He telephoned Clinton and spoke effectively on Rich's behalf. Afterward, Clinton acknowledged to Geraldo Rivera, host of CNBC's "Rivera Live," just how effective the support from Israel had been.
"Israel," he declared, "did influence me profoundly."
Quinn engaged in another sleight of hand. When he forwarded Rich's formal request for a pardon, he bypassed the Justice Department and sent it straight to the White House. A Justice Department review is not required -- but is standard practice.
Rich's lawyers were dogged. E-mails churned across the Atlantic at a furious pace, from Quinn and Rich's other advocates in the United States to Avner Azulay, managing director of his foundation in Israel. A former senior agent with Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, Azulay was well connected.
His involvement, along with that of Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Mossad, who supported Rich's pardon, raised speculation that Rich had aided the Mossad at some invisible point in his past.
Azulay stayed in daily contact with Rich by phone and mail. They met once a month, usually in Switzerland. Rich visited Israel only once a year. He stayed at the plush King David Hotel because he had no residence there.
"Would it still be useful to have another VIP place an additional call to Potus [the president of the United States] to support the petition?" Azulay e-mailed on Dec. 19. "I could try asking the Speaker of the Kensset (Parlement) [sic] Avram Burg who was the guest speaker at the Marc Rich Annual Seminar which opened tonight."
The strategy debate intensified.
Could they somehow approach Giuliani about the case? Bad idea. Other names were tossed about. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Presidential advisor Vernon E. Jordan Jr. Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel. The attorneys contacted some; others they let slide.
Wiesel, for instance, said he was contacted but declined to help.
"Wonder if you can inquire whether there is a possibility of persuading Mrs. Rabin to make a call to POTUS," attorney Robert Fink e-mailed Azulay on Dec. 30, regarding slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's wife.
"Bob, having Leah Rabin call is not a bad idea," Azulay replied the next day. "The problem is how do we contact her? She died last November -- on the 5th anniversary of her husband's murder."
Mounds of praise Quinn prepared the presentation book of accolades and support. It was thicker than a big-city phone book. He laid out the legal framework for Rich's appeal in a carefully crafted letter to Clinton with supporting documents -- a package that former prosecutors in New York would describe as fiction.
It went to the White House.
Fink told Azulay in a Jan. 2 e-mail that the team needed to find a rabbi in the White House counsel's office to shepherd the package.
"I don't understand this comment about the rabbi," Azulay said in reply. "Our book is full of rabbis."
So Fink explained. "By rabbi, I meant someone who is in favor of the pardon and working for it to be granted. Sorry about the lack of clarity, it is just common usage here."
Quinn still held out hope for a rabbi in the Justice Department as well -- perhaps Holder, the Reno deputy whom he had approached earlier about setting up a meeting with White, the U.S. attorney in New York.
In early January, he sent Holder a copy of his request to Clinton for a pardon, along with a short but telling note. "I hope you can say you agree with this letter. Your saying positive things, I'm told, would make this happen."
Quinn also spoke with Beth Nolan, who now held his old job as White House counsel. He argued that Rich was not really a fugitive because he already had gone to Switzerland before his indictment and had simply never returned.
"She responded that this is still a tough case -- that the perception will nevertheless be that MR [Marc Rich] is in some 'sense' a fugitive," according to an e-mail circulated among Rich's lawyers.
Quinn left it to Rich's ex-wife, Denise, to write a tug-at-the-heart letter directly to Clinton. Deftly, it also appealed to Clinton's sense of being unjustly prosecuted during his impeachment.
"I am writing as a friend and an admirer of yours to add my voice to the chorus of those who urge you to grant my former husband, Marc Rich, a pardon for the offenses unjustly alleged and so aggressively pursued," she wrote. There was no mention of political contributions.
She focused on "the pain and suffering" the case had caused.
"Exile for 17 years is enough," she wrote.
By Jan. 1, barely three weeks were left in Clinton's presidency. If word got out now, the pardon might be doomed.
Secrecy became paramount.
The lawyers fretted about rumors that the Securities and Exchange Commission had heard about the pardon request.
By Jan. 9, only 11 days were left. "I think we've benefited from being under the press radar," Quinn e-mailed his fellow lawyers, hoping for the best.
The next day, the Rich team heard about a significant development. The word came from Denise Rich, who was in Aspen, Colo., with her friend Beth Dozoretz. A fellow socialite, Dozoretz was finance chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in 1999 and raised millions of dollars for Clinton's party. It was Dozoretz who had persuaded Denise Rich to contribute to the Clinton library.
Aware that she was a good friend of the Clintons, Quinn had encouraged Dozoretz to make sure the president knew that Rich's petition for a pardon had been sent to the White House. Quinn said she had done so, then talked to the president about it again.
Now Denise Rich was reporting the results of that conversation to Azulay in Israel, and he was e-mailing Quinn in Washington:
Clinton had "said he was impressed by [Quinn's] letter and that he wants to do it and is doing all possible to turn around the WH [White House] counsels." Later Dozoretz reportedly denied the reference to White House lawyers.
Ex-wife summoned Was it a done deal?
Less than a week later, on Jan. 16, Quinn e-mailed his team that "it would be useful if [Denise Rich] made another call to P [the president].
He offered talking points.
"Message shd [sic] be simple: 'I'm not calling to argue the merits. Jack [Quinn] has done that and we believe a pardon is defensible and justified. I'm calling to impress upon you that MR [Marc Rich] and our whole family has paid a dear price over 18 years for a prosecution that shd never have been brought."
On Jan. 18, two days before Clinton left office, Quinn wrote him a last, hand-delivered letter to "clarify" two potential obstacles to a deal and "propose a potential solution to any concerns you might have."
First, Quinn repeated his mantra that Rich was not a fugitive -- and thus his pardon would not be setting "an unwise precedent" for other fugitives abroad.
Second, he said that, while a pardon would end the criminal cases against Rich and Pincus Green, his partner, they were fully prepared to accept any civil liabilities arising from U.S. policy violations.
Now the phone calls and e-mails were frenetic.
Holder, the deputy attorney general, got a call from Beth Nolan, the White House counsel, wanting to know where he stood on the pardon. Holder was preoccupied with a host of eleventh-hour issues, including security for the next day's inauguration.
"Neutral, leaning toward favorable," he told her.
He was struck by the fact that such foreign policy heavyweights as Barak had weighed in on Rich's behalf -- and if it would help American relations with Israel, he would not object.
"In hindsight," he later told Congress, "obviously some bells should have gone off, some lights should have gone on. . . . I wish there were things I would have done differently."
Quinn had a final telephone conversation with Clinton on the matter. They spoke on the night of Jan. 19.
"I could tell that President Clinton had obviously read and studied the pardon petition," Quinn told Congress. "He grasped the essence of my argument about this case being one that should have been handled civilly, not criminally, and he discussed with me whether the passage of time would permit statute-of-limitations defenses in such a criminal proceeding.
"I told him that I would happily give him a letter waiving those defenses, and he insisted that I provide one to him within the hour."
It was after midnight on Jan. 20 -- the day Clinton would relinquish office, and Roger Adams, the Justice Department pardon attorney, who usually reviews all clemency requests, got an unusual phone call from the White House counsel's office. It had more names of people being considered for pardons.
Marc Rich and Pincus Green were on the list, but it did not say who they were. "There would be little information about the two men," Adams said the White House told him, "because they had been 'living abroad' for several years."
Only as his staff began their research did Adams discover what this meant: Rich and Green were wanted fugitives.
Adams said he called Holder at home to alert him, and Holder said he was familiar with the matter.
It was too late.
In the morning, Clinton released his pardon list. Buried among the 176 names of those whose crimes were forgiven or whose sentences were commuted were Rich and his partner, Green.
Lichtblau reported from Washington and Maharaj from Jerusalem. Times researchers Janet Lundblad and Penny Love assisted with this story.