Obama's VP Screener Missed Problems with Controversial Clinton Pardons

Eric Holder said he failed to focus on controversial pardon of Marc Rich.


June 20, 2008 — -- As a top official in the Clinton Justice Department, Eric Holder, one of the people chosen by Sen. Barack Obama to help screen possible vice presidential candidates, failed, by his own admission, "to focus" on the controversial pardon issued by President Bill Clinton to fugitive financier Marc Rich.

In testimony before Congress in 2001, reviewed by ABC News, Holder conceded 'some bells should have gone off, some lights should have gone on" in his vetting process then.

Holder, now a lawyer in private practice, is one of three people selected by Obama to screen and vet possible running mates, looking for possible problems that could arise.

One of the three, Jim Johnson, resigned the post after questions were raised about favorable mortgages he received from a sub-prime lender, Countrywide Financial.

Holder, as the number two person in the Clinton Justice Department, oversaw pardon recommendations to the President.

Critics of the Clinton pardons said that the department's handling of the pardon process, under Holder, broke down in the waning days of the Clinton Administration.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has sought to make Holder's role in the pardons controversy a campaign issue.

At the congressional hearings, Holder testified that he regretted not paying more attention to the pardon process as it unfolded, and failing to foresee possible controversy.

"If I'd known, obviously, that it was going to turn out this way, I mean, I certainly would have done things differently," he said in response to a question about the pardon of Rich.

'I wish that I had assured that the Department of Justice was more fully informed and involved in this pardon process," he testified.

Holder said he paid less attention than he should have because he never thought the Rich pardon would actually go through.

Asked about the Rich pardon by the White House at the time, Holder said he was "neutral to leaning towards favorable if there are positive foreign policy implications that I don't know about."

The Israeli prime minister was among those lobbying for Rich's pardon.

Holder declined to comment on whether his admitted failures in the pardon process reflected on his ability to vet vice-presidential candidates for Obama.

Holder referred calls to Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House Special Counsel and friend of Holder's.

Davis told ABCNews.com that Holder's admissions should not be held against him.

"He stepped up to the line and said, 'you know what? If I had to do it all over again, I would have done it differently.' That shows that he learned a lesson," said Davis. "If anything, he is a better vetter having seen how in one moment in time you can miss asking additional questions."

Davis also said that Holder was distracted at the time because of security concerns over the pending inaugural ceremonies.

At the time, Republicans and Democrats were critical of Holder and the pardons.

"I am really disappointed in the inaction that characterized your treatment of this matter during the time that you were aware of it," Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) told Holder at one of the hearings.

Congressman Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) said he agreed with Republicans that Holder's descriptions of what happened in the Rich case were "almost incredible."

"He neither recommended nor was he responsible for the pardon," said Davis.

"Whose responsibility was it? Was he the cause of the pardon or did someone else make the decision? Obviously it was somebody else named President Clinton."

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said that Holder "did nothing inappropriate" in regard to the Rich pardon request, and defended the campaign's decision to select Holder to screen potential vice presidential candidates, stating that Holder is "a widely respected attorney who has spent the majority of his professional life in law enforcement and he is uniquely qualified to aid us in the search process."

While most of the attention at the time was focused on the Rich pardon, and the contributions Rich's ex-wife Denise made to the Clinton library and campaigns, there was also extensive criticism of the commuted sentences of two convicted members of the domestic terror group, the Weather Underground, Susan Rosenberg and Linda Sue Evans.

Obama himself has questioned the propriety of Clinton's decision to commute the Weather Underground sentences.

When Sen. Hillary Clinton raised the issue of Obama's friendship with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, at a debate in April, Obama responded: "By Senator Clinton's own vetting standards, I don't think she'd make it since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me serving on a board with someone for actions that he did 40 years ago."

At the time of their release from prison, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) joined then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, in criticizing the decision to set free Susan Rosenberg, convicted on weapons and explosives counts, and connected to the Weather Underground's robbery of an armored car in Rockland County, New York that led to the deaths of two police officers and a Brinks' guard.

Schumer's spokesman at the time, Phil Singer, called it a "terrible injustice."Singer worked for the Clinton campaign this year.

Although the petitions for Rosenberg and Evans were filed with the Justice Department, according to their attorney, Davis said that Holder had "no role at all" in the Weather Underground decisions.

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