Clinton facing a criminal investigation over Rich pardon


Former US president Bill Clinton faces further difficulties.

The decision of a New York US Attorney to open a criminal investigation into the Clinton pardon of multimillionaire fugitive from justice, Mr Marc Rich, has opened up a new and unwelcome front for the beleaguered former president. But the involvement of the criminal justice system may also bring him some respite, lawyers say, by slowing congressional investigations.

They also stressed that a low threshold of evidence of malpractice is required to open an inquiry. Congressional leaders were yesterday backing off suggestions that witnesses such as Mr Rich's ex-wife, Denise, should be subpoenaed, with immunity, to give evidence before committees investigating the pardon. The inquiry by US Attorney Ms Mary Jo White is expected to examine bank and telephone records and other documents. "She is trying to determine if there was a transfer of money to buy the pardon," a source quoted by the Associated Press said on Wednesday.

Specifically, the investigators are looking for any evidence that money paid by Ms Rich to the Democratic Party came from her ex-husband in Geneva.

Ms Rich contributed an estimated $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library Fund, more than $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and at least $109,000 to Mrs Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.

Mr Rich fled to Switzerland in the 1980s to avoid charges of evading more than $48 million in taxes, fraud and participating in illegal oil deals with Iran. Mr Clinton, who said he acted purely out of concern over what he saw as an overzealous prosecution of Mr Rich, also weighed in on the matter on Wednesday night. He issued a statement defending his pardon: "As I have said repeatedly, I made the decision to pardon Marc Rich based on what I thought was the right thing to do. Any suggestion that improper factors, including fund-raising for the Democratic National Committee or my library, had anything to do with the decision are absolutely false. I look forward to co-operating with any appropriate inquiry."

Mr Rich's pardon was one of 177 Mr Clinton issued on January 20th. Thirty-two were not reviewed in advance by the Justice Department's pardon attorney, the usual - though neither legally nor constitutionally required - procedure.

In his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Mr Roger C. Adams said he did not learn of President Clinton's impending action until he received a late-night phone call in the administration's last hours. "I was told by the White House counsel's office that the only two people on the clemency list for whom I needed to obtain record checks were Marc Rich and Pincus Green and that it was expected there would be little information because they had been living abroad for several years," Mr Adams said. Mr Green is a colleague of Mr Rich's who was also pardoned.

"You were not told" that the two were fugitives? Senator Arlen Specter asked.

"I was not told," Mr Adams replied. He said he learned of their status only by contacting the FBI. He then passed their files to the White House.

"None of the regular procedures were followed," Mr Adams said.

But Mr Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel who represented Mr Rich, told the panel that he strongly believes Clinton granted the pardon on its merits. He cited a 20-minute phone conversation he had with Mr Clinton on his last night in the White House and said it showed that the president believed Mr Rich had been the victim of an over-aggressive prosecution that should have been resolved through civil litigation.

Meanwhile, there is some relief for Senator Hillary Clinton in the news that the Senate's ethics committee has cleared the deal she made with Simon and Shuster to sell her memoirs for $8 million.