Vowing that he would consult with the involved prosecutors and work to improve the overall pardon process within the department, he said, "I've learned from that experience. I think that, as perverse as this might sound, I will be a better attorney general, should I be confirmed, having had the Mark Rich experience."
Specter pursued the issue further: "Given the background of this man, it's hard to brush it off, it seems to me, as a mistake. The guy had a reprehensible record. The guy was a fugitive," he said. Contending that Holder, who had years of experience with the department, was "heavily involved" in the pardon, he asked, "How do you explain it beyond simply 'It's a mistake?'"
Holder told the lawmaker that he didn't mean to "minimize" the issue by referring to it as a mistake, and that he takes his role in the matter "seriously."
Pulling out his glasses to examine a sheet of paper listing Rich's offenses, Specter questioned whether Holder had familiarized himself with the fugitive's alleged crimes before rating the petition. Admitting that he wasn't familiar with the detains at the time, Holder said he did know the matter involved "a substantial tax fraud case" and his fugitive status, but that he "did not know a lot of the underlying facts that you have described. And as I said, that was a mistake."
The tension was eased a bit when Kohl quizzed Holder on his ability to exercise his "responsibilities independently of what the president may or may not like" -- on the basketball court.
Referring to one of the President-elect's favorite pastimes, Kohl asked, "in the event, Mr. Holder, he invites you to the gym for a little one-on-one, will you promise us and the American people that you will do everything in your power to defeat him as badly as you can? My vote depends on your answer."
As the hearing room erupted into laughter, Holder, who was co-captain of New York City's Stuyvesant High School basketball team, pointed out that Obama is a decade younger, and plays more often. "Having said that, I've got a New York City game," he added, pointing out that the city has produced greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Archibald, and that he learned to play "at PS 127 in Queens."
Though with a bit of practice, Holder said, "I think I could hang with him," but that he probably couldn't beat him, "nor do I think that would be a wise thing to do."
Holder began the hearing by saying that he intends to "lead an agency that is strong, independent, and worthy of the name the Department of Justice" if confirmed by lawmakers.
Saying he feels the "full weight of this responsibility" to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," but that he would do so "in a fair, just and independent manner."
Laying out his goals for the department, Holder said terrorism would be his top priority, but that he would also work to restore the credibility of the Justice Department and will "reinvigorate the traditional missions of the Justice Department."
"Without ever relaxing our guard in the fight against global terrorism, the department must also embrace the historic role in fighting crime that it has, in protecting civil rights, preserving the environment, and ensuring fairness in the marketplace," he said.