An Indefensible Pardon

EDITORIAL   

January 24, 2001

 

Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, the shadowy commodities trader who fled to Switzerland in 1983 to avoid American justice, was a shocking abuse of presidential power and a reminder of why George W. Bush's vow to restore integrity to the Oval Office resonates with millions of Americans who otherwise disagree with the new president's politics.

Unchecked by any other branch of government, the president's authority under the Constitution to pardon anyone charged with federal crimes is meant to be exercised with great restraint to correct an injustice or to further some societal good. Bestowing undeserved beneficence on a fugitive accused of evading $48 million in taxes and illegally trading with Iran in oil during the hostage crisis is hardly what the Constitution's framers had in mind.

Speaking from his new outpost in Chappaqua, N.Y., Mr. Clinton has said he used his pardons to restore rights to individuals who had "paid in full," and were "out long enough after their sentence to show they're good citizens." That description may fit some of the other recipients on his final pardon list. But it surely does not describe Mr. Rich or his former partner, Pincus Green, both of whom fled the country to escape the judicial process. There is a huge difference between pardoning someone who has already paid all or part of his debt to society and pardoning someone who has avoided adjudication.

We are unimpressed by Mr. Clinton's assertion that Mr. Rich's attorney, Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, made "a very compelling case" for a pardon. Mr. Quinn, after all, will presumably be paid well for using his White House connections. True, Mr. Rich's application also had the support of Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, but that may be due to the vast extent of Mr. Rich's charitable giving in his country.

Mr. Clinton was fully aware that pardoning Mr. Rich, the ex-husband of Denise Rich, a prominent fund-raiser for the Clintons and the Democratic Party, would carry a distinct taint and invite irate protests from federal prosecutors like Mary Jo White in Manhattan. That is probably why he kept it a secret that he was considering a pardon, bypassing the normal process in which the Justice Department vets pardon applications and submits them to the president with a recommendation. Small wonder that Ms. White and other current and former law enforcement officials are said to be livid. Mr. Clinton's irresponsible use of his pardoning authority has undermined the pursuit of justice.


 Pardons on the Sly

EDITORIAL  

January 25, 2001

 

Anger over Bill Clinton's abuse of the pardoning process mounted yesterday, as well it should. This page has criticized Mr. Clinton for his last- minute pardon of the fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich. But a broader look at Mr. Clinton's final pardon list makes clear that the outrage extends well beyond the undeserved leniency for Mr. Rich. We are particularly troubled by the numerous instances in which Mr. Clinton granted pardons or commutations without proper consultation with federal prosecutors, often to reward friends or political allies or gain future political advantage.

Consider, for example, Mr. Clinton's decision to commute the sentences of four Hasidic men from New Square, N.Y., who were in prison for defrauding the government by inventing a fictitious religious school and using it to attract millions in government aid. The commutations were granted after Mr. Clinton and his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, met privately in December with supporters of the men, whose politically active sect had overwhelmingly backed Mrs. Clinton in her victorious Senate campaign. Mrs. Clinton denies any responsibility for the president's commutation decision and denies even knowing that commutation would be discussed. But her presence at the meeting surely underscores her interest in accommodating these constituents. The United States attorney in New York, Mary Jo White, vigorously opposed the commutations, which she learned about only at the last minute.

Politics rather than a careful weighing of the merits also appears to have been the deciding factor in Mr. Clinton's pardon of Edward Downe Jr., a contributor to Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats, who pleaded guilty in the early 1990's to insider trading and was sentenced to probation and stiff fines. Prosecutors in Ms. White's office learned of the pardon decision last Friday ó too late to effectively register their objections. Similarly, William Fugazy, a confidant of several politicians, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, and a prominent figure in civic affairs, was granted a pardon for his perjury in a bankruptcy proceeding over Ms. White's objections. Mr. Fugazy's lawyer said he had successfully sought help from an unnamed political figure to carry his request to the White House.

In the same vein, Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, served as a courier who forwarded pardon information to the White House for Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the Weather Underground serving a lengthy sentence for her role in an explosives and weapons case. Mr. Nadler says he took no position on the pardon, which was opposed by Ms. White's office.

Of course, some people close to the president had no need for special access to gain his attention. Mr. Clinton's pardons of his brother, Roger Clinton, who served time years ago on cocaine charges, and of Susan McDougal, who went to jail for refusing to answer questions about Mr. Clinton's Whitewater dealings, were clear distortions of the pardoning process to help friends and family.

The president's power to grant pardons is absolute, and it is meant to correct injustices or perform a civic good. But the properly intense furor over Mr. Clinton's pardon of Mr. Rich led Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, to suggest that Congress might need to review the president's unilateral power to dispense pardons. That seems an unnecessary assault on a fundamental constitutional power. But such Congressional concern should be a signal to future chief executives that in this matter, as in other aspects of presidential judgment, Mr. Clinton is not a role model to follow. President Bush can help restore trust in this important presidential responsibility by committing himself to abide by the traditional process of Justice Department review before a pardon is granted.


 The Pardons Look More Sordid

EDITORIAL  

February 9, 2001

 

The hearing yesterday before the House Committee on Government Reform made it clearer than ever that President Clinton's decision to pardon Marc Rich, the fugitive commodities trader, was an inexcusable abuse of the president's absolute clemency power. The hearings produced information ó unproven but disturbing ó suggesting that Mr. Clinton may have discussed the pardon with a Democratic fund-raiser and was aware of objections to the pardon by White House lawyers. More Congressional inquiries lie ahead. Based on the testimony yesterday they are warranted, but Congress should avoid the temptation for endless inquiry and reach an expeditious account of the interplay between fund-raising and the pardons.

Whatever the outcome, Congress ought to remember that these abuses by a particularly insensitive chief executive are not a good reason to change the Constitution to curtail the president's powers to grant pardons. The Rich case itself suggests that future such abuses can best be avoided by pursuing meaningful campaign finance reform and by tightening government ethics rules.

Campaign finance reform, while not rendering bad presidential judgments obsolete, would help address the root problem involved in this and so many of the Clinton administration's other scandals ó unequal access to the White House. Like those of Michael Milken and others championed by wealthy Democratic contributors, Marc Rich's pardon application was sent directly to the White House and did not go through the usual Justice Department channels. His former wife, Denise Rich, who invoked her right not to incriminate herself in declining to testify yesterday, wrote Mr. Clinton on behalf of the pardon application. She also wrote big checks to the party, to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign and to the Clinton presidential library. Strategic campaign donations were also made by other pardon seekers.

The involvement in this case of Jack Quinn, the former White House counsel, was equally unseemly, placing Mr. Clinton in a terrible predicament. Mr. Quinn's feeble defense of the pardon's merits has only fanned the outrage in recent weeks. His argument that Mr. Rich was improperly charged with crimes in an essentially civil matter should have been made in a court of law two decades ago. The White House is not an alternative judicial venue for fugitives.

A more scrupulous attorney would have recognized and avoided the inherent conflict between his loyalty to the president (essentially his former client), on the one hand, and his obligation to Mr. Rich on the other. The most charitable way to characterize Mr. Clinton's behavior in the case is to accept that he also failed to recognize the conflict and assumed his former lawyer was still in the business of providing him with straightforward analysis on a legal matter, which he clearly did not.

Mr. Quinn testified that he had advised Eric Holder, then the deputy attorney general, that he was approaching the White House on Mr. Rich's behalf, but that is no substitute for following the rules other clemency seekers, who may not have donated a million dollars or may not have hired the president's former lawyer, must follow. For his part, Mr. Holder had no good explanation for his failure to learn more about the merits of the Rich case from prosecutors in New York before declaring his neutrality on the issue. He simply said he did not pursue the matter because he thought Mr. Rich's case was such a long shot on the merits.

Mr. Quinn violated the spirit of executive orders barring senior White House aides from lobbying the government for five years after leaving office, and clearly helped grease the pardon. As Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, said: "This is not a pardon problem as much as it is a revolving-door problem."

Even at a time of heightened cynicism in Washington, it was breathtaking to hear Mr. Quinn testify that he knew he did not violate the Clinton administration's lobbying rules because he wrote them and provided an exemption for communications "regarding a judicial proceeding." This is a standard exception to ethics rules that allows former government attorneys to oppose the government in court, because that does not entail influencing former colleagues. For a former White House counsel to rely on this exception to press the president for a pardon takes an unusual ethical insensitivity.

Mr. Clinton's irresponsibility was also breathtaking, and has added millions of Democrats to the rolls of those who regard him with bitter disappointment. The best way for Congress and the Bush administration to prevent such outrages in the future is not by tinkering with the Constitution but by following Justice Department guidelines on pardons, tightening ethical rules and passing campaign finance reform.


 Get Rich Quick

EDITORIAL OPINION

By Maureen Dowd

February 11, 2001

 

 

WASHINGTON - Oh, heck, let's just impeach him again.

With Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton subverted the legal system and sullied the presidency. With Marc Rich, he perverted the legal system and may have traded a constitutional power for personal benefit.

He can't argue that our interest in this transgression is a violation of his privacy.

The Clintons ran a cash-and-carry White House. They were either hawking stuff or carting it off.

Beyond Denise Rich's $3 million fund-raising lunch and personal donations ó $450,000 to the Clinton library, more than $1 million to Democrats, $10,000 to the Clinton legal defense fund, $7,375 for Clinton furniture ó let's hope Bill Clinton has a Swiss bank account set up by Marc Rich.

Otherwise, it would not be worth sliming the Constitution, his legacy and his party.

Bill and Hill are tornadoes, as James McDougal memorably observed, twisting through people's lives and blithely moving on.

But this time, they may not dance away from the wreckage. The egg may have hit the fan, as Congressman Steven LaTourette put it at the Congressional hearing on the Rich pardon.

This time, maybe the user was used. Bill Clinton was manipulated by a man who made billions manipulating foreign markets. Marc Rich bought a pardon with the money he made betraying America.

Bob Dole once asked where the outrage was. It finally materialized in, of all places, Dan Burton's hearing room as Denise Rich sent a letter taking the Fifth. The committee examined e-mails, telephone records and letters that provided a rare road map into a chic sewer of money and influence, a far cry from the salacious bodice-ripper peddled by Kenneth Starr.

Eric Holder, former No. 2 at Justice and the latest casualty of the Clinton twister, offered lame and contradictory excuses about why he failed to rebut the argument of Jack Quinn, once Mr. Clinton's White House counsel and Monica apologist. Meanwhile, Mr. Holder was being touted as a possible attorney general in a Gore administration, where Mr. Quinn might be chief of staff.

First Mr. Holder said he did not make a fuss because he did not know who Marc Rich was. Then he said he did not make a fuss because he assumed a pardon would not be granted to a known fugitive.

At the hearing, Representative Christopher Shays scorched Mr. Quinn: "Mr. Rich traded with Libya when we had the embargo, he traded with Iran when we had the U.S. hostages being held captive, he traded during the 12 years with Iraq when we had our conflict, he traded grain with the Soviet Union when we had an embargo, he traded with South Africa with the apartheid government when we had that embargo. . . ."

At the hearing, Democrats who had decried the virulent partisanship and wacko behavior of Dan Burton - including his re-enactment of the Vince Foster death by setting up what he called "a head-like" thing in his back yard and shooting into its mouth with a .38 - were echoing the complaints of Mr. Burton and fellow nutbag and Clinton hater Bob Barr.

Even some black Democratic lawmakers, Bill's biggest defenders, were appalled. Representative Elijah Cummings said that when he returned to Baltimore's inner city, people would ask him "about a guy who evaded taxes . . . when they can barely afford to go to H & R Block to get theirs filled out. . . . And they are going to say, `Mr. Cummings, how can that happen when the police are arresting us for simple things?' "

The potent combination of Mr. Rich's money and the access of Mr. Quinn and Denise Rich to the White House was destined to be a winner. As long as they could stay "under the press radar," as Mr. Quinn put it in an e-mail to another Rich lawyer.

Ms. Rich and her pal, another close friend and Clinton benefactor, former D.N.C. finance chairwoman Beth Dozoretz, pushed the pardon, sometimes monitoring events from Ms. Rich's ritzy lair in Aspen.

"POTUS," as one e-mail reports, phoned to buck up the girls from time to time with encouraging updates. If only those pesky White House lawyers would drop their objections, he was ready to green-light the pardon.

Ms. Rich also buttonholed Mr. Clinton at a White House reception on Dec. 20, snatching him away from Barbra Streisand for a pardon tête a-tête.

In the world of the Clintons, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.


Another Pardon Disgrace

EDITORIAL  

February 22, 2001

The disclosure that Bill Clinton's brother-in-law received large fees from two beneficiaries of Mr. Clinton's last-minute pardons and commutations can only deepen the public revulsion over the former president's decisions. It adds to the disturbing impression that Mr. Clinton's actions may have been influenced by friendships, politics and financial contributions.

Mr. Clinton asserted yesterday that neither he nor his wife had been aware of the payments to Hugh Rodham, the former first lady's brother, by the two men. He said they were "deeply disturbed" by news of the fees and called on Mr. Rodham to return the money, which he was reported last night to have done. The former president's statement was welcome but left many questions unanswered about Mr. Rodham's improper lobbying role. The matter must be thoroughly investigated by Congress and the Justice Department.

At issue in the new disclosures were two acts of clemency that had already seemed puzzling. One involved Glenn Braswell, a Los Angeles businessman, who was pardoned for his conviction in 1983 on mail fraud and perjury charges. After his pardon was announced, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles complained that a separate inquiry into possible money laundering and tax evasion might be hampered. The other beneficiary, Carlos Vignali, had his 15-year prison sentence commuted by Mr. Clinton after a campaign waged by some leading public figures in California. Mr. Vignali had been convicted of involvement in a drug-dealing operation.

The American people are entitled to know whether Mr. Clinton was in any way influenced in his actions by the lobbying of Mr. Rodham, who is a lawyer. Mr. Clinton's statement yesterday left unaddressed whether he and Hillary Rodham Clinton knew of Mr. Rodham's interest in the two cases. The Associated Press reported that Bruce Lindsey, a Clinton White House aide, was aware of Mr. Rodham's involvement. Whether or not it was legal for Mr. Rodham to receive fees and press a client's case with his brother-in-law and golfing partner, it was certainly unethical for him to do so. If Mr. Clinton knew of Mr. Rodham's role, he must bear full responsibility for failing to instruct his brother- in-law to withdraw from the cases immediately.

Mrs. Clinton, now a senator from New York, has her own obligation to inform the public of what she knew. She has said she knew nothing of the case of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier pardoned by Mr. Clinton, and was not involved in the decision to commute the sentences of four members of a Hasidic sect in Rockland County. But the latest revelation can only hurt her standing and complicate her efforts to break free of the lax ethical standards of her husband's White House.

Mr. Clinton has argued that he decided all the pardon and commutation cases on their legal and humanitarian merits. It is now up to Congress and the Justice Department to determine whether other factors were involved as well.


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© 2001 by Neil Mishalov