For nearly two decades, Marc Rich has lived a double life. One was a billionaire’s sumptuous world of mansions, ski villas and high finance; the other, the uneasy life of a fugitive. Since he fled the United States in 1983, the 66-year-old Rich has been a prime target of U.S. law enforcement, a regular fixture of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
When President Clinton signed his name to pardon Rich on Jan. 20, it became one of the most controversial pardons since Gerald Ford absolved the disgraced Richard Nixon in the aftermath of Watergate.
Inauguration Day 2001 in Washington turned out to be liberation day for the fugitive financier still hiding out in Switzerland.
Though hiding out may be a bit of a stretch.
Rich’s wealth has been subject of speculation for years. His new company reportedly had revenues of $7 billion last year. He has a Swiss mansion filled with fine art; Picasso is a particular favorite. There is a plush villa on slopes of St. Moritz and a $10 million home in flashy and chic Marbella on the Spanish coast.
For Rich, life on the lam hasn’t exactly been filled with hardship.
That galling fact has been a thorn in the side of federal prosecutors for years.
“His philosophy seems to be, I’m rich and I’m going to be richer, and he seemed to have complete disregard for any legal impediments that might interfere with his increasing wealth,” said Martin Auerbach, one of the young assistant U.S. attorneys who put together the case against Rich in the early 1980s. He is now in his 40s, no longer a federal prosecutor, but — like his colleagues — still vividly recalls the attempt to nail Rich.
‘Biggest tax evasion case in history’
Though Rich’s attorneys apparently persuaded Clinton that Rich’s offenses were not so serious and the case weak, the prosecutors feel differently.
“It was the biggest tax evasion case in United States history,” said New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who at the time was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Well known for his aggressive — some say overzealous pursuit of white collar criminals — Giuliani has been very vocal for 18 years about Rich’s case. He has also been a sharp critic of former first lady Hillary Clinton, and was — until prostate cancer intervened — her Republican opponent in last year’s Senate race.
But tax evasion was just the final piece of the Rich indictment.
Rich was also charged with a complex oil scam that exploited America’s energy crisis in the early ’80s. The 65-count indictment claimed he had secretly bought up millions of barrels of Texas crude oil then under strict price controls and relabeled the oil as decontrolled supplies, ultimately selling it on the open market for huge profits — reportedly $100 million.
And while 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran, Rich’s company allegedly made another fortune by trading with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in violation of a strict American trade embargo.
Rich and his partner were then charged with failing to pay U.S. taxes on the profits.
The formal charges sounded like the case against gangster Al Capone: wire fraud, mail fraud, racketeering, trading with the enemies of the United States, and, of course, tax evasion.
Fled to Switzerland
Rich didn’t wait to find out if the case was solid. He fled to Switzerland just before the indictments came down. A year later, his company plead guilty, settling for $171 million in fines.
But that still meant Rich was liable as an individual for the criminal charges.
So the U.S. authorities began a long manhunt that at times would resemble a spy thriller.
By then, the Belgian-born Rich, who emigrated to America when he was a child, had already begun what was to be a long seduction of his new homeland-of-choice: Switzerland.
“He went to work charming, essentially buying Swiss loyalty ... he really put out the money and the charm,” said Shawn Tully, a reporter for Fortune Magazine who has followed his career.
According to Tully, the normally reclusive Rich did lots of interviews; interviews where the questions were carefully vetted in advance to avoid incriminating information. And he began a remarkable career as a philanthropist in Switzerland, throughout Europe and in Israel.
Rich argued that his company, which had offices in Switzerland, was really Swiss and thus its transactions were legal. In a 1992 interview with “Dateline NBC,” the man who called himself a “business machine” left little doubt that national politics or loyalties would interfere with profits.
“You can’t run a business based on sympathies, otherwise our business would be hampered,” he said.
NBC News tried to contact his attorney for comment on the original case but got no response.
Swiss hampered extradition
It also helped that since tax evasion isn’t a criminal offense in Switzerland, U.S attempts to extradite Rich fell on deaf ears.
But that didn’t mean the hunt was over.
Howard Safir, director of operations for the U.S. Marshals Service, also remembers the attempt to bring the fugitive home.
“He planned his movements very well,” Safir recalled. “We missed him by a few hours in England, by a day or two in Jamaica, and we tried (to get) him in Germany, but he was very good at avoiding us.”
The secret operations, which were legal under U.S. law, were called extraordinary renditions. The idea was to snatch the fugitive and secretly lead him out of the country. Safir said he came close in Switzerland, waiting outside Rich’s mansion, then his office.
But there was a leak; somehow this rendition was flawed.
“The Swiss police found out about it and made it clear to me personally that if we took any action, we were the ones who would be arrested, not Marc Rich,” said Safir.
Rich’s luxurious lifestyle went on undeterred. He told “Dateline” in 1992 that he was a very careful man now.
The billionaire isn’t without his admirers.
In Europe and Israel, his old legal problems with the United States are largely ignored, even ridiculed. Even among those who weigh the offenses more carefully, his generosity and good deeds outweigh the alleged crimes in America. His pardon application included dozens of letters attesting to his philanthropy abroad, which reportedly runs at least into the tens of millions of dollars.
In his interview with “Dateline” nine years ago, Rich, the man who has been described as the the most successful commodities trader of the century and fearless and ruthless in business, appeared content with his new life.
“I certainly like the idea of going back to the United States,” said Rich. “At the same time, I’m managing satisfactorily.” He said it in a soft-spoken way with the blithe assurance of the powerful.
His exile wasn’t without cost though. In 1996, his 27 year-old daughter died of leukemia here in the United States. Her final illness apparently did not tempt him to risk returning to the United States.
But now, the old crimes are absolved. Whether guilty or not, Rich’s exile is over.