Video: Report: Holder accepts position

updated 11/20/2008 11:36:29 AM ET 2008-11-20T16:36:29

Eric Holder is in line for nomination by President-elect Barack Obama to the attorney general's job that Holder has long wanted, but the 2001 episode with fugitive financier Marc Rich is stirring partisan acrimony.

The role of the former deputy attorney general in the pardon of Rich opened Holder to strong criticism from Capitol Hill in a political uproar that Republicans refuse to forget nearly eight years later. The Republican National Committee is resurrecting the episode, circulating an e-mail Wednesday that asks, "Why does Obama want to appoint an attorney general with a long history of controversial pardons?"

The Rich pardon that President Bill Clinton granted on his last day in office became the final controversy in a presidency filled with them.

Ordinarily, pardon applications go through a formal review at the Justice Department that takes many months to complete.

But nothing was ordinary about the Rich case, nor the flurry of nearly 140 other final-day pardons by Clinton that accompanied it.

Rich fled to Switzerland just before he was indicted in New York in 1983 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and participation in illegal oil deals with Iran.

His ex-wife, Denise Rich, visited the White House more than a dozen times during Clinton's presidency and contributed an estimated $450,000 to his library foundation, $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and at least $109,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's first bid for the Senate.

Over the years, Rich ran through a string of prominent Washington lawyers tasked with trying to get him a presidential pardon.

Former Clinton administration lawyer Jack Quinn succeeded where others failed, and the public reaction was immediate and bordered on outrage. Holder was summoned to Capitol Hill to explain.

According to testimony before the Republican-controlled House Government Reform Committee, Quinn's role resulted from action by Holder, who recommended Quinn as the best attorney to represent an unidentified defendant who wanted to settle a criminal matter with the Justice Department. It turned out that the man who asked for the recommendation was representing Rich.

Holder said that in the fall of 2000, he expressed to Quinn his desire to become attorney general in a potential Al Gore administration.

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The conversation took place weeks before Quinn informed Holder he was seeking a pardon for Rich, Holder testified. Republican congressmen were unimpressed.

"You wanted something from Mr. Quinn. You wanted his support for attorney general of the United States, and he wanted a pardon for Mr. Rich and his partner," Rep. Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of the House panel, told Holder.

Holder insisted that he didn't know about Quinn's pardon plans at the time they discussed the attorney general's job.

And as Holder began dealing with Quinn's desire to get a pardon, "my actions in this matter were in no way affected by my desire to become attorney general of the United States," Holder testified.

Image: Marc Rich
Urs Flueeler  /  AP
In this Nov. 27, 2000, file photo, Marc Rich is seen in a car in Switzerland.
The committee led by Republicans concluded that Holder and Quinn worked together to cut the Justice Department out of the decision-making process.

According to an e-mail produced to the committee, Holder told Quinn to "go straight to wh" (White House) in seeking a pardon for Rich. Federal prosecutors did not have an opportunity to express an opinion on a possible Rich pardon.

As for his own view, Holder said that initially he was neutral on the question of a pardon for Rich. He said he subsequently told the White House counsel that he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" on discovering that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak supported Rich's petition.

After fleeing the United States, Rich became an Israeli citizen, giving tens of millions of dollars to Israeli hospitals, museums and orchestras as well as projects to take in Jewish immigrants.

In his congressional testimony, Holder expressed regret but defended his conduct as completely ethical. Holder testified that he wished he had asked more questions about the Rich case, and would have been opposed to a pardon if he had obtained more information at the time.

"I wish I had done some things differently with regard to the Marc Rich matter," Holder testified. "Specifically, I wish that I had ensured that the Department of Justice was more fully informed and involved in this pardon process."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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