Denise & Bill & Beth

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Clinton with Beth Dozoretz (right) during a Robin Williams performance

Of all the calls, letters and e-mails in the frantic effort to secure a presidential pardon for rogue financier Marc Rich, the oddest may have come on Jan. 10. That day, a Democratic socialite and fund-raiser named Beth Dozoretz was on a ski trip in Aspen, Colo., when she got a call from the Leader of the Free World. Bill Clinton said he was impressed with the argument for forgiving tax-evasion and fraud charges against the fugitive tycoon, and wanted to grant the pardon.

Dozoretz told her ski buddy in Aspen — Rich's ex-wife Denise — who then called Avner Azulay, the head of Rich's foundation in Israel. Azulay sent an e-mail to Rich's Washington lawyer, Jack Quinn, who had been lobbying Clinton in the first place. Denise Rich, the e-mail said, "thinks [Clinton] sounded very positive but that 'we have to keep praying.'"

Those prayers were answered 10 days later, when Clinton pardoned Rich. The behind-the-scenes campaign to win clemency for the nation's most controversial fugitive came to light last week with the release of hundreds of e-mails and other documents at a congressional hearing into the Rich pardon — a scandal that threatens to extend the Clinton era well into George W. Bush's first year. The documents revealed that Rich strategists debated whether to enlist Hillary Clinton in the effort and whether to tap Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to serve as a "moral authority" in favor of forgiveness. But Republican probers seized on Dozoretz as a potentially important piece in the pardon puzzle — or at least one guaranteed to keep some of the Clintons' friends in the hot seat. She has raised millions for the Democrats and contributed thousands to Clinton's personal projects. Last month the President reportedly returned the favor by allowing her husband, managed-care magnate Ronald Dozoretz, to resign from the prestigious Kennedy Center board before his term expired so Clinton could reappoint him to a new six-year stint.

Beth Dozoretz's involvement in a pardon discussion was not in itself remarkable. What investigators want to know is whether her fund-raising work for the Clinton presidential library had any connection to the pardon. Sources tell TIME that Dozoretz raised $450,000 from Denise Rich for the library. Its donor list is not public, and though Rich is not thought to be among the biggest givers, sources say her first gift of $250,000 was a significant early step in the fund-raising process.

Last week Rich took the Fifth. Next week the House Government Reform Committee plans to subpoena her bank records. Investigators will try to determine if her ex-husband wired funds into her account for any Clinton causes. The committee also plans to subpoena donor lists for the Clinton library, and will seek a meeting with Dozoretz to learn more about her role.

Dozoretz and Rich have more in common than their support for Clinton. They are successful businesswomen. Rich is a well-known songwriter; Dozoretz made it big in retail clothing before marrying. Both entertain lavishly, Rich in her penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park and Dozoretz in a $4 million mansion north of Georgetown. Although both have raised money for the Clintons, Dozoretz, who was finance chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1999, is more active and, sources say, introduced Rich to the library effort. They were among 15 donors invited to one of the first library fund-raisers, a 1999 meeting in a Manhattan hotel attended by the former President.

Clinton has publicly denied being influenced by Denise Rich and has insisted to friends that if anyone helped nudge the pardon, it was former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who called repeatedly to press Rich's case. Sources tell TIME Barak's influence could also be seen in the talks held at least as late as the second week of January between White House staff and lawyers for another pardon applicant, Jonathan Pollard, the convicted spy for Israel. While not dismissing Barak's influence, House investigators are focusing on the more familiar nexus of money and politics. According to the Jan. 10 e-mail, Clinton supposedly told Dozoretz (she denies it) that "he wants to do it, and is doing all possible to turn around the White House counsels." Clinton should have seen the furor coming. Not only did he fail to persuade counsel Beth Nolan that the pardon was appropriate, sources say, but his most trusted aide, Whitewater warhorse Bruce Lindsey, opposed it to the end.