Eric Holder and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

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Nov. 25 2008 3:46 PM

Eric Holder and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

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Just before Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, he granted a presidential pardon to the fugitive billionaire Marc Rich. Rich had fled the country for Switzerland in 1983 after being charged (by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani) with tax evasion and the illegal purchase of Iranian oil during the 1980 hostage crisis. He'd ended up on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted List." Clinton's pardon created a furor because Rich was a fugitive, because the pardon had been subjected to little formal review, and because Rich's ex-wife had previously contributed a reported $1 million to various Democratic candidates (including senator-to-be Hillary Clinton) and to Clinton's presidential library. When the Republican-led House government reform committee held its inevitable hearings on the matter in February 2001, a star witness was the man President-elect Barack Obama reportedly has chosen to be his attorney general: Eric Holder. Holder's role in the Rich pardon is certain to come up at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Holder was deputy attorney general in Clinton's Justice Department. In his prepared statement at the 2001 hearing (below and on the following four pages), Holder told the committee that he'd never heard of Rich when he was first approached late in 1999 by Rich's attorney, former White House Counsel Jack Quinn (Page 2). Holder said he contacted Giuliani's successor as Manhattan U.S. attorney and asked her to meet with Quinn about dropping the charges. She declined. A year later, Holder met again with Quinn. This time Quinn said he planned to circumvent the Justice Department's pardon office and would instead submit a pardon application directly to the White House. Holder testified that Quinn's plan struck him as "unremarkable" (Page 3). Holder next heard about Rich on President Clinton's last full day in office. Quinn phoned to tell him to expect a call from his successor as White House counsel, Beth Nolan, about Rich's request for a pardon. When she phoned, Holder told Nolan he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable." In retrospect, Holder told the committee, he wished he'd "placed as much focus on the Rich case as I did on other pardons" (Page 4).

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Rich never returned to the United States, possibly because of tax issues that the pardon never resolved. He currently runs the Marc Rich Group investment portfolio and the Rich Foundations philanthropic institutions.

Historic footnote: Another Washington lawyer called to testify in that February 2001 hearing was I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who as a private attorney had represented Rich from 1985 until the spring of 2000. At the time of the hearing, Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney's newly appointed chief of staff. Eight years later, Libby himself is considered a likely bet for a presidential pardon, this time from President Bush, for Libby's perjury conviction in connection with the Valerie Plame case. (Bush has already commuted Libby's 30-month sentence.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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