— As a congressional panel probes former President Clinton's pardon of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich, the man's ex-wife is refusing to testify.
Before Clinton freed him from prosecution on his final full day in the White House, Rich was one of the Justice Department's most wanted international fugitives.
The House Government Reform Committee opened its investigation Thursday into whether the eleventh-hour decision was linked to the more than $1 million Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, donated to Democratic causes, including then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.
Learn about other infamous fugitives who are on the lam.
Clinton defends Rich pardon.
"This doesn't look like a very good case for a pardon, so the question we have is: How did it happen?" said committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., who has held numerous hearings on past Clinton controversies. "We don't know all the facts."
Rich's Ex-Wife Takes the Fifth
Denise Rich, who sent a letter to Clinton asking him to grant the pardon, is refusing to appear before the panel or answer any of its questions in writing.
"Ms. Rich is asserting her constitutional right not to respond to questions," her lawyer, Martin Pollner, said in a statement on Thursday. "Ms. Rich has done nothing wrong with regard to the pardon and knows of no wrongdoing by others."
Burton said he would seek a grant of immunity from the Justice Department — a move that would allow the committee to compel her to testify.
"I find it very, very troubling that in a case like this, where the public simply wants an explanation, that its central figure would take the Fifth Amendment," he said, later adding that Ms. Rich was "probably going to be one of the key people to give us all the information that we need."
In addition to her contributions to the Democratic Party and various campaigns over the years, Ms. Rich also gave an undisclosed amount to the Clinton Presidential Library and sent the Clintons $7,000 worth of furniture, which the former president now says he will reimburse her for.
Marc Rich was indicted on 51 counts of tax fraud, mail fraud, racketeering and illegally trading with Iran during the U.S. trade embargo. Rich stood accused of evading more than $48 million in federal income taxes, making the case against him the biggest tax fraud case in American history.
Clinton's pardon of Rich, who fled to Switzerland in 1983 in an effort to avoid prosecution and tried unsuccessfully to renounce his U.S. citizenship, has been roundly criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee's top Democrat, insisted Thursday there was "no evidence of criminal wrongdoing" on the part of Clinton, but he called the move an "end run around the judicial process."
Former Clinton Counsel Defends Pardon
Under intense questioning from the House panel, however, the lawyer who persuaded Clinton to grant his client clemency, said the political contributions by Rich's ex-wife never entered into his discussions with Clinton.
"Not a single word … had to do with anything other than the merits of this case," testified Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel during the Clinton administration.
Quinn also defended his pursuit of the pardon for Rich, saying the case against him was weak and denying he abused his relationship with then-President Clinton.
"I remain to this day absolutely and unshakably convinced that the prosecution constructed a legal house of cards," he said. "I represented my client fairly, vigorously and ethically."
At the hearing, a Jan. 10 e-mail to Quinn from Rich supporter and friend Avner Azulay was released. It indicated that Clinton had to overcome objections from his own counsel's office before he granted the pardon.
According to the e-mail, Denise Rich had told Azulay that Clinton had telephoned her friend Beth Dozoretz, former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The e-mail suggested that Clinton wanted to grant the pardon, and said that Clinton "is doing all possible to turn around the WH (White House) counsels."
Clinton defended his actions, telling reporters last week, "there was absolutely nothing political" about his decision.
"I did what I thought was right," Clinton said. "On the merits, I don't think it was the wrong decision."
But the two prosecutors who built the case against Rich said today it was iron-clad.
"The notion that this pardon was quote, 'on the merits,' as has been said by our former president, a man who I voted for twice, is simply incorrect," testified Martin J. Auerbach, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "The merits of this case were unquestionably in the government's favor."
"To reward people like [Rich] with the ultimate act of mercy is an outrage," added Morris Weinberg Jr.
Both men conceded, however, they had no evidence Clinton's decision was politically motivated.
"I have no idea why the president did this," said Weinberg.
Former Justice Official Denies Responsibility
A number of committee members also pointed the finger of blame at former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today for failing to weigh in against granting the pardon for Rich.
But Holder insisted he never paid much attention to the case, pointing out the pardon request was submitted directly to lawyers at the White House, not to the Justice Department pardon office, as is customary.
"Attempts to make the Department of Justice or me the fall guys in this matter are rather transparent," he told the panel.
The former No. 2 man at Justice also testified that he never thought Clinton would grant a pardon to Rich, given the fact he was a fugitive.
"Obviously some bells should have gone off, some lights should have gone on," Holder conceded. "If I'd known … that it was going to turn out this way, I would have done things differently."
In one particularly tense exchange, Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia suggested Holder may have withheld his opposition to the pardon to curry favor with Quinn, a close confidant of former Vice President Al Gore, because he hoped to become attorney general if Gore won the election.
Holder admitted the two had spoken about the possibility of his being appointed to the top Justice Department post, but strongly denied it factored into his handling of the Rich matter.
"You are now implying that I have done something that is actually corrupt," Holder said firmly. "I will not accept that!"
A spokesman for the committee said Burton intended to subpoena Beth Nolan, former counsel to the president, and Bruce Lindsey, a former senior Clinton aide, both of whom declined to appear before the panel today.
Despite the controversy over the pardon, there is likely little the committee or Congress can do to change it. The president's constitutional authority to grant pardons is unfettered.
"The Constitution is very clear that the president has the power to pardon," Ari Fleischer, President Bush's press secretary, said today.
But Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — who is set to chair Judiciary Committee hearings on Clinton's decision next week — now plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow the House and Senate to undo pardons with a two-thirds vote.
"This grant of authority … should be modified in light of recent experience and recognition of the basic fact that the President is not the King," Specter, an erstwhile Clinton critic, said in a letter circulated to colleagues Thursday.