Rich Pardon Goes Under the Capitol Hill Microscope

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Most presidential pardons raise a few eyebrows. Former president Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, on the other hand, left virtually no eyebrow unmoved.

And Thursday, a host of players in this international drama gathered to re-create their roles before the House Government Reform Committee, hoping to answer some lingering doubts about this very controversial pardon.

Marc Rich, who was until his January 20 pardon listed on the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted list, was indicted in 1983 with his partner Pincus Green on more than 50 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and trading with Iran. Since then, the enormously wealthy Rich has lived in Switzerland, where authorities have declined to oblige U.S. requests for extradition. He owes an estimated $50 million in back taxes, as well as untold penalties.

And it's possible that he might pay it all back someday. When the Justice Department agreed to sign off on Rich's pardon, they stipulated that the businessman waive any statute of limitations on civil charges. So that door is wide open — and support for a civil case appears to be strong, even in unlikely circles. Questioned by reporters this week during a golf trip in Coral Gables, Fla., former president Clinton passed the torch to his successor. "The Bush administration can look at the facts," he said, "and decide if they want to file a civil case, where the standards of proof are lower than criminal court, and get millions back for the American taxpayers."

Since he fled the country nearly 20 years ago, Rich's ex-wife Denise, a New York City socialite, songwriter and Democratic fund-raiser extraordinaire, has supported endless unsuccessful attempts to clear his name. She lobbied hard for this pardon, soliciting letters in praise of Rich's absentee philanthropy around the world. At about the same time the President's office was collecting requests for pardons, Denise made about $70,000 in soft-money contributions to Hillary Clinton's Senate run. Hillary won her seat — and Rich won a pardon. Coincidence?

Dan Burton doesn't think so. So the representative from Indiana (and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee) called for Thursday's hearing into the pardon, to determine, as Burton said, "whether the President has an improper motive for the pardon and how much, if any, consultation was done with law enforcement officials."

What followed Thursday was a rapid-fire questioning directed at Rich's attorney, former White House counsel Jack Quinn, and a spirited, occasionally tense debate over the role of the Justice Department in the pardon. Quinn, who championed Rich's pardon request, argued that his client's 1983 indictment was a result of an abuse of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) act. Former attorney general Eric Holder, who was acting AG when the pardons were approved, clashed repeatedly with Burton over what Holder perceived to be insinuations of influence peddling at the Justice Department. "I know what you're implying," Holder barked at Burton at one point during the afternoon. "I'm not implying anything at all," Burton replied coolly.

For now, undoubtedly to the chagrin of Burton and others who share his disgust for Clinton's last minute slate-wiping, there's nothing Congress can do about this or any other questionable pardons — beyond holding endless hearings to discuss their lack of merit. Presidential pardons are an absolute, executive power that Congress has no power to overrule. Some day in the future, however, frustrated members of Congress might be able to do more than talk about dubious pardons. Thursday afternoon, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, announced his sponsorship of a bill to allow congressional review of controversial presidential pardons. The bill, if approved, would provide a 180-day window for opponents of a pardon to galvanize two thirds of the House and Senate required for a reversal. You never know — Specter might even get unanimous support: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has also indicated his willingness to discuss overhauling the presidential pardon process. The Senate is expected to hold hearings on the subject sometime next week.