The Marc Rich Case: A Primer

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Marc Rich and then-wife Denise in a 1986 photo

President Clinton's eleventh-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich has sparked a firestorm of controversy, launching investigations in both houses of Congress and igniting fierce protest from both Democrats and Republicans. The U.S. House and Senate have issued a rash of subpoenas calling for witnesses as well as financial records, as the House Government Reform Committee continued its hearings and the Senate Judiciary Committee geared up for its own proceedings.

Thursday, the controversy took another step forward — no, we're not at impeachment yet, but it's been suggested — when federal prosecutors in New York officially opened a criminal investigation into whether Rich did indeed buy his pardon with his ex-wife Denise's pointed largesse to the First Couple and the Democratic party.

That prompted Dan Burton, chairman and lead Clinton-hunter on the House Government Affairs Committee's ongoing investigation into the matter, to put on hold his request to the Justice Department to give Denise Rich immunity in exchange for her testimony. Rich has already declined to testify, citing her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

As with almost everything relating to the former president, the Marc Rich pardon case raises a lot of questions. Some answers will surface only after all the Capitol Hill witnesses are heard and the U.S. Attorney's office does its thing. Others, happily, we can answer here and now.

First of all, what does it mean to be "pardoned" by the President?

In legal terms, a pardon in an exemption from punishment for a criminal conviction. Presidential pardons are granted unilaterally and cannot be reversed.

So what's the point of all these hearings?

Some are calling the inquiries a field day for die-hard Clinton-haters. But most see this as a source of bipartisan outrage. Republicans and Democrats alike were dumbstruck by the Rich pardon. The federal prosecutors who indicted Rich are especially livid, particularly because, by definition, Rich appears to be ineligible for a pardon: He never took responsibility for his actions or served any sentence.

The congressional panels were called to investigate the path to Rich's pardon — which, as various documents seem to indicate, did not follow usual channels. In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. pardon attorney Roger Adams says when the White House sent over Rich's name for pardon consideration — only a few hours before the President was due to leave office — there was never any mention of Rich being a fugitive. There is also suspicion that donations made to Clinton campaigns and to the Clinton presidential library by Rich's ex-wife, Denise, could be a quid pro quo for the pardon.

There are other questions looming: Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, asked whether Clinton even had time to sign all of the paperwork required to seal Rich's pardon before he left office — raising the possibility that the pardon may not be valid. Specter has also floated the idea of a constitutional amendment giving congressional oversight to presidential pardons.

Will Clinton be brought in to testify about the pardon?

It doesn't look like it. Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has indicated he's interested in having Clinton appear to "clear the air," but says he doesn't believe the former president should be forced to testify.

How does President Bush feel about the Rich pardon inquiries?

Bush has been quoted as saying he thinks "it's time to move on," and by all accounts has little interest in pursuing any investigation that keeps his predecessor in the national spotlight.

What was Marc Rich's alleged crime?

In 1983, Rich was indicted in federal court of evading more than $48 million in taxes. He was also charged with 51 counts of tax fraud and with running illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis.

So does the pardon mean that if Rich leaves Switzerland (where he's been living for 17 years and seems quite happy to stay) and comes back to the U.S., that he won't face any legal proceedings at all?

Possibly. He's free of any criminal charges in connection with the case, but Rich can still be charged in civil court on, say, tax evasion charges. In fact, when Clinton finally signed off on Rich's pardon, the President stipulated that Rich waive the statute of limitations normally placed on as yet unspecified civil charges.

Rich has been living in Switzerland for almost 20 years now. Is he still a U.S. citizen?

That's one of the major questions connected with this case. And the answer, legally, anyway, appears to be yes. While Rich's lawyers can't seem to decide if their client is a citizen — sometimes he is, sometimes he isn't — and Rich himself reportedly considers himself a citizen of Israel and Spain, a federal appeals court ruled in 1991 that Rich had not actively renounced his U.S. citizenship, and therefore he was subject to U.S. law.

Why does his citizenship matter?

If Rich is, in fact, still a U.S. citizen, he's liable for taxes, no matter where he lives. So the IRS wants to know if Rich filed taxes for 17 years he spent abroad — and the congressional panel is investigating whether Rich's money made it back to Bill and Hillary Clinton; non-citizens are not permitted to make political contributions.

What does Denise Rich have to do with all this?

Marc Rich's socialite ex-wife has donated an estimated $1 million to Democratic causes, including $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's successful Senate campaign and $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library fund. She also lobbied heavily for Marc's pardon. Investigators want to know if Denise's contributions led to a direct quid pro quo exchange for her ex-husband's pardon. Clinton has denied any connection, saying he relied solely on the information provided by Jack Quinn (former White House counsel and Rich's current lawyer) when he was weighing the pardon request.

What happens to Denise Rich now?

Last week, when she was called to testify before the congressional panel, she took the Fifth (the amendment to the Constitution that allows potential witnesses to decline testimony out of fear that they might incriminate themselves). Now the same House panel wants to offer Rich immunity in order to discuss her ex-husband's case. House Republicans want approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft before granting immunity. Ashcroft is currently "considering" the request.

What about Washington Democratic fund-raiser and socialite Beth Dozoretz, whose name has come up in connection with the case?

Beth Dozoretz, fund-raiser and FOB, was, according to TIME, skiing when she heard that Clinton was "impressed" by Rich's case for a pardon. Dozoretz eagerly told skiing partner Denise Rich about the development, who called Marc Rich's supporters in Israel, then Washington. Dozoretz is also a big contributor to the Clinton presidential library fund. As in Denise Rich's case, congressional investigators want to know if there's a trail leading straight from Dozoretz's bountiful checkbook to Clinton's signature on Marc Rich's pardon.