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Holder testimony on pardon questioned
Question of the Day
Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. told Congress under oath that he had "only a passing familiarity" with the criminal case against billionaire Marc Rich before President Clinton pardoned the fugitive financier in 2001- testimony that is now raising concerns among lawmakers reviewing Mr. Holder's nomination.
Correspondence with the Justice Department and testimony secured by Congress from other witnesses show that 15 months before the pardon, Mr. Holder met privately with Mr. Rich's attorney and received a presentation about what Mr. Rich's defense believed were flaws in the government's case.
Mr. Holder, then serving as the No. 2 official in the Clinton Justice Department, later took the rare step of contacting federal prosecutors handling Mr. Rich's case in New York and, according to his own testimony, tried to "facilitate" a meeting with the defense.
"We never pressured anybody to have the meeting; the call was for the Southern District of New York to make," he said. The prosecutors refused the request, in part because Mr. Rich had been a fugitive for 16 years and had taken no steps to turn himself in.
The Republican lawmaker who investigated the controversial Rich pardon told The Washington Times that evidence documenting the 1999 contacts conflicts with Mr. Holder's testimony and that he has forwarded information he has on the subject to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will examine President-elect Barack Obama's choice for attorney general.
Mr. Holder "certainly had more than a passing familiarity with this case," said Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, who oversaw the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee when it investigated the Rich pardon in 2001.
"I know human beings are fallible and they make mistakes, but making statements that are not accurate while under oath before a congressional committee goes beyond the pale," he said. "Sure as the dickens, he was not straight with our committee."
Mr. Holder and the Obama transition team did not respond to repeated e-mails and telephone calls for comment.
During his House testimony, Mr. Holder said his actions in the Rich case were "consistent with my duties and responsibilities as deputy attorney general," although in hindsight he said he wished he had "done some things differently" with regard to the matter.
"Specifically, I wish that I had assured that the Department of Justice was more fully informed and involved in this pardon process," he said, adding that the Justice Department, Mr. Clinton and the American public, "in the cause of justice, would have been better served if the case had been handled through the normal channels."
Mr. Holder told the House committee in sworn testimony in February 2001 that he was not "intimately involved or overly interested" in the government's $48 million fraud case against Mr. Rich, that the investigation "did not stand out as one that was particularly meritorious," that he "never devoted a great deal of time to this matter" and that it "does not now stick in my memory."
He also testified, according to a committee transcript, that he had "only a passing familiarity with the underlying facts" of the case and that after New York prosecutors refused his invitation to meet with Mr. Rich's attorney, former Clinton White House Counsel Jack Quinn, he had "no reason to delve further into this matter."
Mr. Holder also said he had "no memory" of Mr. Quinn telling him that he would file a pardon request on behalf of Mr. Rich directly with the White House, bypassing the normal Justice Department pardon process.
But public records, including a 467-page House Government Reform Committee report, show that Mr. Holder's interest in the Rich case surfaced during the October 1999 contacts with Mr. Quinn. At the time, Mr. Rich had been a fugitive from justice since a 1983 indictment in what was described as the biggest tax fraud case in U.S. history.
Mr. Rich and his business partner, Pincus Green, were indicted on 65 counts of tax evasion, fraud and racketeering in a scheme to evade $48 million in taxes and for violating U.S. sanctions by trading with Iran while American hostages were held in that country.
House committee Democrats, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, said in a separate February 2001 report that the pardon was "bad precedent, an end-run around the judicial process, and appeared to set a double standard for the wealthy and powerful." But Democrats found no evidence of any corruption by Clinton administration officials, including Mr. Holder.
The Democrats said Mr. Rich and Mr. Green "did not deserve the pardons they received from President Clinton," but that the committee's Republican members had failed to prove that any Clinton administration official "was bribed or otherwise corrupted." They called the Rich pardon "the product of a rushed and one-sided process," saying it reflected "deeply flawed judgment by the president."
But they said the facts did not confirm a criminal conspiracy insinuated by the majority members.
At the time Mr. Waxman said the majority report was "partisan, relies on innuendo and makes unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing." He said the evidence cited in the report showed "nothing more than bad judgment."
He also said the report ignored information on the involvement of prominent Republicans in the Rich matter, including I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. He said Mr. Libby served as an attorney for Mr. Rich and told the committee that he agreed with "most of the substantive reasons President Clinton gave for the pardon."
He also said Democrats, in the minority report, concluded that the contrast between the majority's treatment of Mr. Quinn and Mr. Libby was "striking," noting that Mr. Quinn was "castigated" for his representation while Mr. Libby's involvement was "hardly mentioned."
But the majority report concluded that Mr. Holder "abdicated his responsibilities as the deputy attorney general and took actions that ensured that the Justice Department would have no meaningful input" on the pardon.
The report cited as evidence, among other things, a typewritten note sent by Mr. Quinn to Mr. Holder 10 days before the Jan. 20, 2001, pardon. It said, "Your saying positive things, I'm told, would make this happen. Thanks for your consideration."
A Nov. 18, 2000, e-mail from Mr. Quinn to his Washington law firm also acknowledged Mr. Holder's involvement in the pardon process. The e-mail said: "Subject: Eric ... spoke to him last evening. he says go straight to wh. also says timing is good. we shd get in soon. will elab when we speak."
"Assuming the 'eric' referenced is Eric Holder, this e-mail contradicts the heart of Holder's defense," the House report said, noting that Mr. Holder testified he was "not focused on the Rich pardon until late in the process, at first on January 6  ... and then, not really until January 19 .
"This e-mail indicates that Holder suggested that Quinn file the petition with the White House and circumvent the Justice Department," the report said. "It indicates that Holder was a willing participant in the plan to keep the Justice Department from knowing about and opposing the Marc Rich pardon."
In testimony in February 2001 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Quinn said he went to Mr. Holder about the Rich case in late October 1999 to "provide him with an overview of the flaws in the outstanding indictment against Mr. Rich." He said he then wrote to U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White in New York about the Rich case at Mr. Holder's suggestion, asking that her office re-examine the charges against his client.
"I was denied even a meeting. This left us at an intractable impasse. And so eventually I sought a pardon," he said. "I personally notified Mr. Holder in his office on Nov. 21, 2000, that I would be sending a pardon application directly to the White House. I told him then that I hoped to encourage the White House to seek his views.
"He said that I should do so, and I did later encourage the White House to seek his views," Mr. Quinn said. "I hoped the consultation with Mr. Holder by the White House would help me make my case for Mr. Rich, because I believed Mr. Holder was familiar with the charges and with our arguments as to the flaws in the indictment."
Mr. Quinn also told the committee that he called Mr. Holder on the evening of Jan. 19, 2001, to tell him Mr. Rich's pardon was receiving serious consideration at the White House, and "that I understood he would, in fact, be contacted before a decision was made." He said Mr. Holder was consulted and "the position he expressed was important to the ultimate decision to grant the pardon."
The House report said that as Mr. Rich's attorneys prepared to file their pardon petition, Mr. Holder "provided pivotal assistance to their effort."
"After first succeeding in keeping the career prosecutors at the Justice Department from having any input in the Rich pardon, Holder informed the White House on the last day of the Clinton administration that he was 'neutral, leaning towards favorable' on the Rich and Green pardons," the report said. "Together, these actions had a dramatic impact on ensuring that the pardons were ultimately granted."
The House committee's voluminous report was delivered last week by Mr. Burton to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, with a note saying, "I hope you take a look at this.
"The post of attorney general, which is the nation's No. 1 law enforcement person, is one of the most important nominations a president can make," Mr. Burton said. "And, as we have learned, if you have an attorney general who's got your back, you can get away with almost anything.
"The new appointee has to be above reproach," the Indiana Republican said. "We don't want someone in that office with a lot of political IOUs."
Mr. Specter told reporters that Mr. Holder's actions in the Rich pardon would be "a factor to consider" during the confirmation process and the committee would "take a very, very close look at his record with focus on the Marc Rich pardon.
"Rich was a fugitive. They did not follow regular order. And we'll want to know, in some detail, as to what Mr Holder had to do with that," he said.
House Republicans, in the majority report, said Mr. Holder "failed to offer any credible justification" for his support of the Rich pardon.
They cited as evidence of his involvement in the Rich case the fact he had "a number of contacts" with Mr. Quinn, that he told Mr. Quinn to send a letter directly to Miss White requesting a sit-down, that he told Mr. Quinn that once he and two of his top assistants got copies of the letter, he personally would call Miss White concerning a meeting, that after speaking with the chief prosecutor, he determined she was reviewing the case, and that during his conversation with Miss White, it "didn't sound like her guard was up."
They said Mr. Holder also told Mr. Quinn he was assigning one of his top deputies, Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, "to look at the Rich matter," and that after Miss White refused to meet, Mr. Quinn said Mr. Holder told him that while "we're all sympathetic" to his case and that the "equities [are] on your side" he could not force the prosecutors to meet.
The House report said Mr. Holder also told Mr. Quinn the refusal of prosecutors to meet was "ridiculous."
"Even assuming, though, that Holder's support was limited to his request for a meeting with Mary Jo White, it is still unclear why he thought the 'equities were on Quinn's side,' even with respect to a meeting," the report said.
"The [Southern District of New York] had made a number of reasonable offers to settle the case," it said. "Rich's lawyers, however, took an inflexible position that they would not agree to any plea that required jail time. Given this position, the SDNY decided further negotiations would not be productive."
Miss White rejected the meeting request on Feb. 2, 2000, saying the case was a "matter within the discretion" of her office.
The committee also concluded that Mr. Clinton issued the Rich pardon on his last day in office "knowing almost nothing" about the case. It said he made a number of mistaken assumptions and reached false conclusions, noting that the White House never consulted with prosecutors in New York about the case and, as a result, was never able to rebut the "false and misleading arguments" made in the Rich pardon petition.
"Every White House staff member who was working on the Rich pardon opposed it," the committee said.
The Holder confirmation hearing initially was scheduled to begin Jan. 8, but Republicans complained they did not have enough time to review Mr. Holder's record, including his role in the Rich pardon. Mr. Specter sought a hearing date of Jan. 26.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, described the delay as "disappointing ... at a time when the nation needs its top law enforcement officer and national security team in place and working." But he agreed to give Republicans until Jan. 15 to prepare.
"This is a public servant we have known and worked with for more than 20 years, and the Senate has previously confirmed him three times to important positions," Mr. Leahy said. "He should not be made a pawn in some partisan political game.
"I hope our Republican members will resist the temptation toward partisanship and join with us to consider this appointment fairly and promptly," he said.
Mr. Clinton said at the time he awarded the pardon based on the merits of the case as presented to him by Mr. Quinn and denied that the $1.2 million Mr. Rich's ex-wife, Denise, donated to the Democratic Party, including $70,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's successful 2000 Senate campaign and $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library fund, had anything to do with it.
He said he "spent a lot of personal time ... because it's an unusual case, but Quinn made a strong case, and I was convinced he was right on the merits."
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