WASHINGTON - Detailing the frenzy of activity that preceded Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich in the final hours of the Clinton presidency, the head of the Justice Department's pardon office said yesterday that the White House failed to tell him that Rich and his partner were fugitives from the law.
Testifying before the Senate committee that is looking into the Rich pardon, Roger Adams, a career Justice official, said the White House counsel's staff told him simply that the billionaire financier and his business partner, Pincus Green, were "living abroad."
The pardon, Adams said, was not handled in "anything approaching the normal way."
"None of the regular procedures were followed," he said.
Clinton's pardon of Rich has become the subject of widespread criticism and investigations in the House, which held a hearing last week, and the Senate. Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where Rich was indicted 18 years ago, has also opened an investigation into possible criminal violations, a source familiar with the case told the Associated Press yesterday.
"She is trying to determine if there was a transfer of money to buy the pardon," the source said.
Rich's former wife, Denise Rich, contributed about $1 million to Democratic candidates, including $70,000 to a fund established for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign. Denise Rich also donated about $450,000 to Bill Clinton's presidential library fund.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Adams said he did not learn that the White House was considering Rich and Green for pardons until he received a call from the White House counsel's office after midnight Jan. 20.
In that call, Adams testified, he was told that there would likely be little information about the two men "because, to quote the words of the White House counsel's office, they had been 'living abroad' for several years."
"You were not told [that Rich and Green were fugitives]?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who has suggested amending the Constitution to curb the presidential pardon power.
"I was not told they were fugitives," Adams replied.
The Justice official said it was only in a subsequent fax from the FBI that he learned that Rich and Green were fugitives who had been living in Switzerland since 1983, when they were indicted on charges of evading $48 million in income taxes, committing mail and wire fraud, and participating in arms trading involving Iran.
Earlier this week, the House Government Reform Committee issued subpoenas related to Denise Rich's political contributions. The committee also asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to support a grant of immunity for Denise Rich to compel her testimony. She has refused to testify before the House panel, having invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
At yesterday's Senate proceedings, no Democrats were willing to defend Bill Clinton's actions, and most joined the chorus of sharp Republican criticism.
Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, said that anyone familiar with the Rich pardon would have to believe it was a result of "power, connections, money."
"If you're rich, you're powerful, you're well-connected, you can get something done," he said. "And if you're not, you can't get anything done."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said there was no justification for pardoning a fugitive. "This stands our justice system on its head and makes a mockery of it," he said.
But noting the absolute pardon power the Constitution gives a president, Schumer said that even if all 100 senators disagreed with Clinton's decision, "there's a whole lot of nothing we can do about it."
Though Specter said he favors a constitutional amendment allowing a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to overturn a presidential pardon, lawyers who testified at yesterday's hearing were unanimous in their belief that no brakes should be put on the pardon power.
"It would strip the president of pardon power during moments of passion, during moments of crisis when he or she needed that pardon power the most," said Ken Gormley, a law professor at Duquesne University.
Rich's pardon was one of 141 Clinton granted on the last day of his presidency. He also commuted the sentences of 36 others that day. Of the 177 total clemency actions, 32 were not reviewed in advance by the Justice Department's pardon attorney, which is the usual procedure.
Adams noted that a judicial review is not legally or constitutionally required: "If the president decides to not follow the procedures, if he doesn't want input from the Justice Department, if he doesn't want an investigation from my office, I can't force one down his throat."
He said that when he learned, in the early hours of Jan. 20, that Rich and Green were fugitives, he called Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder at home and found out that Holder was aware of the possible pardons.
Testifying yesterday, Holder acknowledged that Rich's lawyer Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, had mentioned the Rich pardon request to him on previous occasions. One such occasion, Holder said, was in a phone call Jan. 19, when Quinn told him that the White House would be seeking his opinion of the request.
When the White House counsel, Beth Nolan, called him that evening, Holder said, he told her he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on the Rich pardon - but only because he had been told, by either Quinn or Nolan, that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak strongly favored the pardon and he thought there could be some foreign policy benefit from it.
But Holder said it was clear to the White House that his position was not based on the usual Justice Department review, because the department lacked the background information on Rich and Green to make a considered recommendation.
"Obviously, people in the White House knew that," Holder said. "It might not have been the president."
Holder also said he had been preoccupied on the last full day of the Clinton presidency with personnel matters and Inauguration Day security concerns. He said he had received specific information about a "potential safety problem" for the incoming president.
"There are things I wish I could have done differently on that night," Holder said.
Quinn, also testifying yesterday, insisted he was not trying to circumvent the Justice Department by taking his pardon petition directly to the White House and said he was confident that Clinton's decision to pardon Rich was based on the law, not on the fact that Denise Rich had been a major donor and had pledged thousands of dollars to his presidential library.
"You may believe [the president] made a big mistake," he told the senators. "But I tell you, nothing, absolutely nothing, in my conversations with him remotely suggested to me that he was thinking about or motivated by his friendships, his politics or his library."
Asked by Kohl whether money and influence had helped buy Rich's pardon, Holder said: "I don't know precisely what motivated the president and who he spoke to. ... I'm not naive, and I don't want to give the American people a bill of goods. ... There's no question certain people have an ability to get more quote-unquote influential people to weigh in."
Specter suggested yesterday that, if necessary, he would call Bill Clinton to testify, noting that President Gerald R. Ford had voluntarily testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his pardon of Richard M. Nixon.
Specter again noted that it was legally possible to impeach a former president, stripping him of his pension and benefits and disqualifying him from ever holding another public office. He stopped short of calling for a second impeachment of Clinton, saying merely that he was surprised to learn it was an option.