WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Three senior advisers to former President Bill Clinton told a House panel yesterday that they had emphatically urged him to reject the pardon application submitted by lawyers for billionaire Marc Rich but had been overruled by Clinton, who decided to grant the pardon on his last night in office.
The aides - John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff; Beth Nolan, a White House counsel; and Bruce Lindsey, a deputy White House counsel - said Rich did not deserve a pardon. They said they presented their views to Clinton at two meetings, on Jan. 16 and Jan. 19, shortly before Clinton decided to grant pardons to Rich and his commodities trading partner, Pincus Green. "The staff informed the president that it was our view that the pardon should not be granted," Podesta told the House Government Reform Committee, which is investigating whether the president's decision was influenced by contributions to the Clinton presidential library by Denise Rich, the financier's former wife, who has pledged $450,000 to the library.
At the opening of the hearing, Beth Dozoretz, a Democratic fund-raiser who had urged Clinton to grant the Rich pardon, appeared briefly and refused to testify, asserting her constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Clinton has said he made his decision on the merits of Rich's legal case, and none of the aides said yesterday that they knew of any arrangement in which a pardon was granted in exchange for contributions. But Nolan testified that she doubted the merits of the pardon petition. "If Mr. Rich and Mr. Green had such a great legal argument, the place to make their case wasn't there in the Oval Office," she said.
Republicans raised questions yesterday about the presence of Cheryl D. Mills, then a former assistant White House counsel, at the final and apparently decisive Jan. 19 meeting. Mills, a trusted aide to Clinton, sits on the board of the Clinton library foundation.
Nolan testified at the hearing that Mills said in the meeting that serious consideration should be given to a contention of Rich's lawyers that he deserved clemency as a victim of selective prosecution. "She pushed hard for everyone to think about the issues," Nolan said. None of the aides recalled any discussion of Clinton's library or contributions at the meeting.
Presidential conversations with advisers are private and usually beyond the reach of congressional investigators. But Clinton notified the panel this week that he would allow his aides to testify fully about the Rich pardon and other grants of clemency without asserting executive privilege.
Nolan told the panel that by the end of last year the White House was overwhelmed with pardon requests. She received 30 to 40 phone calls from lawmakers. Podesta said that among the callers were Republican Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who sought clemency for James Lake, who was convicted in the independent counsel investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
"We had requests from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and both Houses, we had requests from movie stars, newscasters, former presidents, former first ladies," Nolan said.
Chairman Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, said the rush of pardons at the end of Clinton's term created the image of a double standard for justice.
"The appearances that are being created here are obvious," said Burton, a longtime Clinton critic. "If you have friends in high places, you can get around the law."
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, harshly criticized the pardon process, describing it as a "chaotic mess" that he said "should embarrass every Democrat and every American."
Dozoretz, a former Democratic National Committee finance director, is a friend of Denise Rich's. Each spoke with Clinton, urging him to grant the pardon.
Dozoretz arrived at the hearing flanked by two lawyers. She sat at the witness table, smiling as Republican lawmakers sought to grill her about her role in the pardon.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, wanted to know about Dozoretz' conversations with Clinton. "While you were discussing the Marc Rich pardon with President Clinton, did either you or the president mention Denise Rich's contribution to the Clinton library or the Democratic National Committee?"
Dozoretz replied, "Upon the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer that question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution."
In their testimony, Clinton's aides recalled a meeting Jan. 16, four days before Clinton left office, in which they first discussed the Rich pardon. Podesta and Nolan said they left the meeting believing that Clinton was convinced that the Rich pardon application should be rejected.
Nolan said, "I didn't think it was going anywhere."
Podesta added: "I thought he had accepted our judgment. I didn't think this was an active matter."
But Lindsey said he left the meeting less sure of what action Clinton intended to take in the Rich case.