Former President Clinton's top advisers told House investigators today they urged him not to pardon billionaire fugitive Marc Rich, but he rejected their advice.
Three former Clinton White House aides — Chief of Staff John Podesta, counsel Beth Nolan and adviser Bruce Lindsey — all testified before the House Government Reform Committee today that nearly all of the staffers involved in advising the president on the matter tried to convince him in "heated" discussions not to pardon financier Marc Rich and his partner Pincus Green, two of the nation's most-wanted white-collar fugitives.
"We argued…that if Mr. Rich and Mr. Green had such great legal arguments, there was a place to make them, and it wasn't there," Nolan said. "It wasn't in the Oval Office."
But Rich's friends in high places and high-powered lawyers made a more persuasive case to Clinton. Attorney Jack Quinn, himself a former White House counsel who had helped Clinton weather the impeachment trial, played on the president's feeling that he had been pursued by overzealous prosecutors to win sympathy for Rich. Even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak weighed in on Rich's behalf.
"I think he disagreed because people — other people he respected had a different view, and he made a judgment in favor of their view," Nolan said.
But all three aides denied that Rich's ex-wife Denise, managed to buy the pardon by donating money to Clinton's campaigns, his presidential library or other Democratic campaigns. Asked point-blank whether any "quid pro quo" was involved, each answered flatly, "No."
Podesta took the blame for letting the pardon process break down in the final frenetic days of the Clinton administration as they tried to cope with a flood of last-minute requests.
"I believe he made it on the merits as he understood them, but I think that we didn't serve him very well, in terms of providing him with the counterarguments," Podesta said.
Aides to Clinton also said that Tony Rodham, brother to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., had pushed pardons that the former president issued a year ago to a Tennessee couple, Edgar and Vonna Jo Gregory, but said Rodham was not paid for the effort.
Nolan said she literally stopped going to parties because so many people were hounding her with pardon requests.
"They were coming from everywhere," she said. "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."
Clinton paved the way for the remarkable glimpse into the White House decision-making process by waiving any claims of executive privilege that could have been used to keep his private conversations with staff secret.
Clinton Friend Won't Talk
Earlier, a top Democratic fund-raiser who pressed Clinton to pardon Rich refused to answer lawmakers' questions about the matter. Beth Dozoretz, former finance chairwoman of the Democratic Party and a close Clinton friend, cited her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions about a phone conversation she had with the president just over a week before he pardoned Rich. Parroting words her attorney whispered into her ear while sitting before members of the House Government Reform Committee, Dozoretz subsequently refused to answer any questions from the panel.
Dozoretz had informed the committee earlier this week she would refuse to testify, but chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., forced her to appear in person to do so.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., had asked Dozoretz about a call she received from Clinton on Jan. 10 while vacationing in Aspen, Colo., with Denise Rich.
Burton wants to know whether she helped broker what amounts to the sale of a pardon. Denise Rich helped finance Clinton campaigns, pledged $450,000 to the presidential library and gave more than $1 million to Democratic causes before her ex-husband was granted a pardon.
"The appearances that are being created here are obvious," Burton said in his opening statement today. "If you have friends in high places you can get around the law. It makes it look like we have one system of justice for the rich and powerful and another system of justice for all the rest of us."
But the harshest words for the former president came from a Democrat, who had been one of his strongest defenders during impeachment.
"Bad judgment is obviously not impeachable, but the failures in the pardon process should embarrass every Democrat and every American," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
At the same time, Waxman cautioned against the Republicans' continued "obsession" with investigating the Clinton family.
"I realize that ridiculing President Clinton makes great entertainment for some, but those obsessions … are not healthy," Waxman said. "President Clinton is not going to be impeached again and he's no longer the president."
Marc Rich now lives in Switzerland after fleeing the United States 17 years ago to escape prosecution on fraud and tax evasion charges that made him one of the most-wanted white-collar criminals in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, documents revealed today shed new light on the campaign to win Rich's pardon, and show that it began much earlier than previously thought. In an e-mail sent on March 18, 2000, Rich aide Avner Azulay, the former chief of Israel's Mossad spy agency, writes to New York-based lawyer Robert Fink that Denise Rich was being sent on a "personal mission" to the president with a "well-prepared script."
Back in New York, the criminal investigation into the Rich and Green pardon's continued amid reports that Ms. Rich is close to making a deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for her cooperation in the investigation of her ex-husband.
Also, New York State officials have announced they are seeking $137 million in back taxes plus penalties and interest from Mr. Rich. They say he's avoided paying taxes in the state for nearly two decades.
ABCNEWS' Jackie Judd, Mark Halperin, Chris Vlasto and ABCNEWS.com's Brian Hartman contributed to this report.