WASHINGTON—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.
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) lam The 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 help Back 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.