The former prosecutor whom President-elect Barack Obama wants to run the Justice Department bypassed the agency's career lawyers during one of the most controversial final decisions made by President Clinton in January 2001 — the pardon of billionaire fugitive financier Marc Rich, congressional records show.
Eric H. Holder Jr., then the deputy attorney general, worked with former White House Counsel Jack Quinn to ensure that department officials — particularly federal prosecutors in New York who handled the Rich case — "did not have the opportunity to express an opinion on the Rich pardon before it was granted," the Republican-led House Government Reform Committee concluded in a 467-page report in 2002.
The committee's evidence included an e-mail in which Mr. Holder told Mr. Quinn to "go straight" to the White House and that the "timing is good" for Mr. Rich's request for a pardon. Normally, pardon requests are reviewed by career prosecutors before a recommendation is forwarded to the White House.
Mr. Quinn responded in a typewritten note to Mr. Holder, just 10 days before Mr. Clinton issued the pardon, "Your saying positive things, I'm told, would make this happen. Thanks for your consideration."
Mr. Holder was not available for comment on Wednesday. But he told lawmakers during the investigation that he thought he had done nothing wrong.
If Mr. Obama forwards Mr. Holder's name for confirmation as the first black attorney general, the Rich pardon is likely to come up among lawmakers already concerned that Justice Department career lawyers were bypassed or subject to political pressure during the Bush administration.
The House committee, which finished its investigation in 2002, concluded from its interviews and the documents that Mr. Holder helped bypassed the normal procedure for pardons in Mr. Rich's case. The report was approved by Republicans, led by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, over the objections of Democrats.
"The evidence amassed by the committee indicates that Holder advised Quinn to file the Rich pardon petition with the White House and leave the Justice Department out of the process," the report said.
Mr. Holder, the committee also concluded, failed to notify prosecutors under him that the pardon was under consideration and failed to offer "any credible justification" for it.
Mr. Rich, whose ex-wife gave $1.3 million to the Democratic National Committee, was pardoned by Mr. Clinton on his last day in office. At the time, Mr. Rich and his business partner, Pincus Green, were on the list of the Justice Department's six most-wanted international fugitives. The pardon was the last major controversy of the Clinton presidency, in part because it was issued over the objection of many senior aides and bypassed the normal Justice Department pardon-vetting process.
Mr. Holder, a former U.S. attorney in Washington and trial judge who once entertained the idea of running for D.C. mayor, has conditionally been offered the attorney general's post by Mr. Obama -- pending a determination of the level of bipartisan support that the former Justice Department official can bring to the confirmation process.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would oversee the confirmation hearings, said he thought Mr. Holder would "make an outstanding nominee" who should have the support "of both Democrats and Republicans" if he is formally nominated.
But the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Holder's actions in the Rich pardon would be "a factor to consider" during the confirmation process. He said he "wouldn't want to articulate it among the top items" but that it would be "worthwhile to look at."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and Judiciary Committee member, said he hoped nothing comes up that would jeopardize his nomination if Mr. Holder's was formally nominated. But he said, "He'll have to answer questions, and his record will speak for itself."
Mr. Holder had talked with Mr. Quinn on numerous occasions concerning the political viability of a presidential pardon, committee records show. It was Mr. Quinn who arranged for a telephone call with the White House, during which Mr. Holder said he was "neutral, leaning towards favorable" on the idea of pardoning Mr. Rich.
In testimony before the House Government Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 2001-02 inquiry, Mr. Holder said the phone call was not intended as a formal approval of the pardon by the Justice Department. He said he did not view the comment as a recommendation because he "didn't have the ability to look at all the materials that had been vetted through the way we normally vet materials."
"What I said to the White House counsel ultimately was that I was neutral on this because I didn't have a factual basis to make a determination as to whether or not Mr. Quinn's contentions were in fact accurate, whether or not there had been a change in the law, a change in the applicable Justice Department regulations, and whether or not that was something that would justify the extraordinary grant of a pardon," he said.
Mr. Holder and Mr. Quinn vigorously denied any wrongdoing during the committee hearing. At one point, Mr. Holder angrily rebutted suggestions by Republicans of a possible deal in the case. Pointing his finger at then-Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, who made the suggestion, Mr. Holder said his actions in the pardon were "consistent with the law and with my duties as deputy attorney general."
Mr. Quinn said at the time that the pardon was deserved because the government's case was flawed, adding that prosecutors misused the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act as a "hammer" to indict Mr. Rich and Mr. Green. He said prosecutors Morris Weinberg Jr. and Martin J. Auerbach constructed a legal "house of cards" based on meritless charges.
But Mr. Auerbach and Mr. Weinberg both expressed "outrage" over the pardon, adding that it was not deserved. They had refused for 17 years to negotiate with Mr. Rich.
"If we had a legal house of cards, it was all aces," said Mr. Auerbach. "The one card we did not have was the 'get out of jail' card and Mr. Rich now has that card."
Mr. Weinberg said during a committee hearing that the Rich investigation was the biggest tax-fraud case in U.S. history and that Mr. Rich had shown "an utter lack of remorse or contrition." Records show that federal prosecutors told Mr. Rich's attorneys beginning in 1983 that it was their policy not to "negotiate dispositions of criminal charges with fugitives." Mr. Rich, while a fugitive, remained a force in world commodity trading.
The House committee concluded in the March 2002 report that Mr. Holder played a significant role in facilitating the pardon, first by recommending Mr. Quinn to Mr. Rich's legal representatives, and by delivering what it called a favorable opinion of the last-minute pardon to the president from a position of authority.
Merits of the case
Mr. Clinton told reporters that the pardon was based on the merits of the cases as argued by Mr. Quinn and that the $1.3 million Mr. Rich's ex-wife, Denise, contributed to the DNC had nothing to do with the decision. He said the American people would support the pardon "if they take a look at the record."
In addition to the DNC donation, Mrs. Rich, a songwriter, also contributed to directly to Mr. Clinton and to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and donated more than $7,000 worth of furniture for the Clintons' New York home.
A memo released by the committee showed that Mr. Clinton told the DNC finance chairman 10 days before the Rich pardon that he was doing everything "possible to turn around" White House lawyers opposed to the fugitive financier's pardon. It said Mr. Clinton personally called Beth E. Dozoretz, the DNC's national finance chairman, to say "he wants to do it."
The memo from Robert Fink to Mr. Quinn, both members of Mr. Rich's legal team, said Mrs. Dozoretz relayed the president's comments to Mrs. Rich during a Jan. 10, 2001, visit by the two women to Aspen, Colo.
"DR called from Aspen. Her friend B — who is with her — got a call today from potus — who said he was impressed by JQ's last letter and that he wants to do it and is doing all possible to turn around the WH counsels," the memo said. The term "potus" is a shorthand reference to the president of the United States.
Mrs. Dozoretz pledged to raise $1 million for the Clinton library. She and Mrs. Rich declined to answer the committee's questions.
Records also show that three of Mr. Clinton's closest White House advisers opposed the Rich pardon, but he ignored their advice.
"I don't know if there was any way to be more against something than I was against this," former White House Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey told the committee. "I discussed his fugitive status with the president and believed that was the beginning and the end of the question. I told him the place to make the case was not in the Oval Office."
Former White House Counsel Beth Nolan and ex-White House Chief of Staff John Podesta also said they recommended against the pardon.
"I formed an opinion very quickly that the pardon should not be granted. I told the president it was my job to tell him what I think. I know who's the president, and who's not. He was entitled to make the ultimate judgment," she said.
Mr. Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983 after a federal grand jury indicted him on 65 counts of tax fraud, racketeering and tax-evasion charges. He had faced 325 years in jail. Companies owned by Mr. Rich and Mr. Green separately pleaded guilty in 1984 to evading millions of dollars in taxes by concealing profits on oil trading.