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The Pardon of Marc Rich: How Hillary Clinton Served as the “Secret Weapon” for One of the Biggest Tax Cheats in American History
President-in-waiting Hillary Clinton has never addressed her role in the midnight pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich. In fact, she’s rarely been asked her opinion on the free pass given to one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, a man who violated embargoes against Iran and South Africa and fled the country rather than face trial in what was billed as “the biggest tax evasion case in history.” Hillary has variously said that she was “unaware” of the decision and “surprised” by it. When pressed, she merely cackles.
Even though 300 pages of core documents relating to the pardon decision remain under seal at the Clinton Library, a review of the available record tells a much different story. In fact, the Rich legal team viewed Hillary as a “secret weapon,” and as one door after another closed on their search for a pardon they focused more and more on invoking what Rich lawyer Robert Fink called the “HRC option.”
Who is Marc Rich? And why did he need a presidential pardon?
Born in Belgium to Jewish parents, Marc Rich moved with his family to the United States to escape Hitler. Young Marc soon went to work for a commodity firm in New York called Phillip Bros, later acquired by Salomon Brothers. He soon made his mark as an oil trader and, along with his friend Pincus “Pinky” Green, he is credited with inventing spot market trading in oil, ferrous metals and sugar. Billions flowed into the firm, and the European press took to calling Rich “the Aluminum Finger.”
But Rich and “Pinky” Green felt underappreciated and underpaid. They bolted the firm, and Rich angrily vowed to “grind Phillip Bros. into oblivion.” In 1974, the pair started their own holding company, eventually known as the Marc Rich Group, and began making oil deals with Iran, Iraq and wildcatters in Texas. He and Pinky were soon billionaires and big shots in the global petrochemical trade.
Around this time, Rich courted a buxom young Jewish singer/songwriter from Worchester, Massachusetts, named Denise. He whisked her off to his seaside villa in Marbella, Spain, where the couple were married and rapidly assumed the life of international jet-setters and art collectors. It is said that Rich owns one of the largest private collections of Picasso paintings and sculptures in the world. Rich began referring to himself as a “business machine.” The years passed. Denise bore Rich three daughters and honed her songwriting skills on transcontinental flights on the family’s private jet. Saccharine pop flowed off her micro recorder , including minor hit “Frankie.” The bank accounts swelled.
Then in 1983 crisis hit the Rich family. The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York notified Rich and Pinky that they were under investigation for fraud, illegal oil deals with Iran and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and tax evasion. Documents were subpoenaed. Indictments were in the works. Rich hired D.C. heavy-hitter Edward Bennett Williams to fend off assaults of a vicious young prosecutor – none other than Rudy Giuliani.
When Giuliani requested that Pinkyand Rich turn over their passports and post a large bond, Williams acted indignant and personally avowed to the federal judge overseeing the case that his client was not a flight risk. Two days later, Pinky and Rich were on a plane bound for Europe. As expected, the indictments came: a 65-count charge alleging fraud, trading with the enemy (Iran), and tax evasion.
Humiliated, Williams resigned in a huff, and Rich found a succession of new lawyers over the next decade, including former Nixon attorney Leonard Garment and Lewis Scooter Libby, who would later find refuge in the awesome power of presidential privilege.
Rich’s escape from Giuliani’s clutches is the stuff of spy novels, made even more thrilling due to the fact that he almost certainly had several moles inside Giuliani’s office, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies who kept him apprised of the schemes to nab him. He evaded the U.S. marshals on his tail at Heathrow Airport in England, and then later his plane bound for Finland mysteriously turned at the last moment for Sweden, once again narrowly avoiding landing in custody. Years later, Rich would also escape his captors in Germany and Jamaica, courtesy of anonymous tips to the fugitive billionaire.
The tycoon’s eventual passage to safe harbor in Switzerland went from Sweden through East Germany, aided by the notorious Wolfgang Vogel, an East German lawyer who specialized in shuttling spies into and out of Eastern Europe.
Rich dropped millions at every stop, especially in Switzerland. He and “Pinky” Green choose the town of Zug to establish their new headquarters in a blueberry-colored office tower. Entreaties were made to Swiss officials, and money liberally dispensed.
“He bought Swiss loyalty,” says Shawn Tulley, a financial crimes reporter for Fortune magazine, who covered the Rich case. “He really put out the charm and the money.” When the U.S. Marshals finally tracked Rich down in Switzerland, they immediately petitioned the Swiss government for his extradition. Request denied. As far as the Swiss were concerned, financial crimes, especially involving taxation, were trifling concerns unworthy of governmental consideration.
When the Swiss refused to turn Rich over, the Marshals tried to kidnap the world’s most famous tax evader under the extraordinary rendition program, which has since become a staple of the Bush regime.
The Marshals set up a team outside of Rich’s mansion and his offices. But again, there was a fortuitous leak. The Swiss police approached the would-be kidnappers and told them to shut down their operation or they would be the ones sitting in jail. The Marshals retreated. Rich had found his sanctuary. He summoned Denise and the children to join him in sprawling mansion near Lucerne and then renounced his U.S. citizenship. This freed him from the nagging obligation of ever again having to worry about entanglements with the IRS over tax obligations. But it also threw the validity of his eventual pardon into question.
The exile of Marc Rich was not an idle one. Indeed, from 1983 to 1996 Rich’s fortune ballooned from a mere billion dollars to more than $7 billion. He and Pinky struck oil deals in Russia and Bulgaria (prompting accusations of fraud and thievery in both countries) and mining operations in central Asia, Africa and South America. Along the way, he sharpened the art of the political bribe. Rudy Giuliani alleges that during this period Rich tried to bribe the state of New York, offering millions to the State Department of Education in exchange for a withdrawal of the pending charges.
In order to buy alumina from the new leftist government of Jamaica for less than half the market price, Rich wired $50 million to Jamaican President Michael Manley in an hour of acute distress for the embattled ruler.
Even as he neared the top of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Rich also didn’t see any reason to abandon his operations in the United States. In fact, his hand is seen orchestrating one of the most savage crackdowns on organized labor in recent decades. In 1989, Rich secretly acquired the controlling interest in a West Virginia-based company called Ravenswood Aluminum. Ravenswood was embroiled in a tumultuous battle between management and workers at the plant when in 1990, under Rich’s long-distance orders, the company tried to bust the union. On a bitterly cold night, a private security force arrived at the plant, set up armed guards at the gates and surveillance cameras around the perimeter of the facility, and locked out 1,700 workers, all members of the Steelworkers Union. Over the ensuing weeks, the armed guards repeatedly clashed with picketing union members, fogging the air with tear gas and beating skulls with their police clubs. Soon Rich made the call to hire permanent replacement workers, for less pay and reduced benefits. The lockout went on for two more years. “It was a brutal affair,” says Dan Stidham, president of the Ravenswood union local at the time of the lockout. “I’m still pretty upset with Clinton for pardoning that guy after all we went through.”
Meanwhile, back in Lucerne, Rich was beginning to cultivate the Israeli government. He established the Rich Foundation in Tel Aviv, which would distribute more than $100 million to Israeli causes over the next decade. To oversee the foundation, Rich selected a former high-ranking Mossad official named Avner Azulay, whose ties to the intelligence agency probably never totally evaporated. Azulay was a useful conduit to Israel’s political elite. He was close to Yitzak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert. A decade later, Azulay would play a key role in securing Rich’s pardon from the Clintons.
Through Azulay, Rich offered his services to the Israeli government, especially the Mossad. Indeed, according to letters from Israeli officials, Rich played the role of a “Say-Ayon,” or unpaid asset of the Mossad. In fact, Rich was subsidizing Israeli intelligence operations. He financed numerous covert missions and allowed Mossad operatives to work covertly in his offices around the world.
With experience as an international spook now added to his C.V., Rich reached out through intermediaries to both the FBI and the CIA. He offered his services to both agencies in exchange for dropping the charges against him. The CIA’s response is unknown, but the FBI was intrigued and sent the request to the Justice Department, where it was quashed.
Around this time, Rich launched into a public liaison with a glamorous Italian widow by the name of Gisela Rossi. He flaunted the affair in front of Denise, the tycoon’s wife who had followed him into his luxurious life on the lam. Denise filed for divorce and prepared to return to New York. But Rich, whose net worth now neared $10 billion, was offering her only a tiny settlement. So Denise took matters into her own hands. She removed a Van Gogh painting from the wall of their palace in Lucerne and warned her estranged husband that unless he ponied up more money, she would take the masterpiece with her. Ultimately, Rich offered her a settlement of $200 million. Although the amount is far less than she would have gotten in most U.S. courts, Denise signed the papers and took her daughters with her back to Manhattan.
Rossi and Rich soon married and now divide their time between St. Moritz and Marbella, Spain.
A year after the Rich’s divorce, their oldest daughter, Gabriella, was diagnosed with a rare and terminal form of leukemia. She died within the year. Marc Rich made no effort to visit Gabriella in her final months. Denise Rich seethed.
The machinations to secure a pardon from Bill Clinton for Marc Rich began in earnest in the fall of 1998, when Rich’s public relations flack in the U.S., Gershon Kekst, squirmed his way into a seat next to Eric Holder, the number two in the Clinton Justice Department, at a gauche D.C. party thrown by Daimler/Chrysler. Without mentioning Rich by name, Kekst asked Holder how a man of considerable resources might be relieved of the burden of being “unproperly indicted by an overzealous prosecutor.”
Holder took a sip of wine and told Kekst that such a man would need to hire a D.C. lawyer who knows the ropes and has deep connections inside the Clinton administration. “He comes to me and we work it out,” confided Holder.
“Can you recommend such a person?” Kekst inquired.
Holder pointed to a man sitting at a nearby table. “There’s Jack Quinn,” Holder whispered. “He’s a perfect example.”
Kekst dutifully wrote down Quinn’s name, did some research on the former lawyer for the Clintons, and transmitted the joyful news to the Rich camp.
There is every indication that Holder was trying to drum up business for Quinn, a partner at the powerhouse firm of Arnold and Porter, as well as a top advisor for Al Gore’s presidential campaign. Holder was desperate to have Quinn’s backing in his doomed bid to become attorney general.
Back in Switzerland, Rich ordered up a dossier on Quinn. His initial response was not favorable. Rich believed Quinn to be merely a “pretty boy” with little experience and “more connections than clout.” He decided to stick with Scooter Libby’s team. But Scooter, who had represented Rich since 1985, produced no results, and in the summer of 1999, with the clock ticking down on Clinton time, the desperate tycoon reached out to Jack Quinn.
Quinn formally became Rich’s lawyer on July 21, 1999. His fees were stiff: an initial retainer of $355,000, plus a minimum payment of $55,000 each month. Quinn’s firm, Arnold and Porter, reserved the right to represent clients suing Rich on matters. Rich consented.
Initially, Quinn intimated to the Rich team that securing the pardon would be a relatively easy matter. A few calls to his good friend Eric Holder, and that would be that. Quinn was wrong. When Holder contacted the prosecutors in Manhattan about the Rich case, they vowed to oppose any deal until Rich returned to the U.S. and entered a plea in the case. Rich refused.
From that point on, the Rich team, including his sympathizers inside the Clinton administration, hid their maneuvers from federal prosecutors. After discussions with White House aides Bruce Lindsey and Beth Nolan, Quinn sent out an email calling for a new approach: “It’s time to move on the GOI [Government of Israel] front but we have to get the calls initiated over there.”
Letters and calls soon flooded the White House from Israeli officials and high profile Jews, including Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Elie Weisel. In one way or another, each had received benefits from Rich or one of his foundations. A problem soon developed. When presented the opportunity to discuss presidential pardons with Clinton, many of these leaders, anxious perhaps to legitimize Israeli penetration of the U.S. government, choose to plead the case of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard instead of Rich.
Quinn scrambled comically for a solution. Quinn sends an urgent email to Robert Fink, Rich’s longtime New York lawyer.
From: Jack Quinn. To: Fink, Robert, NY.
“Hope you’re checking email; I don’t have access here to avner’s email address, or marc’s, and wonder if you can inquire whether there is a possibility of persuading Mrs Rabin to make a call to POTUS [President of the United States].He had a deep affection for her husband. “
Fink leaps into action with an email to Avner Azulay, the former Mossad officer, now heading the Rich Foundation in Tel Aviv.
From: Fink, Robert, NY. Sent: Saturday. To: Avner Azulay
“… Jack asks if you could get Leah Rabin to call the President; Jack said he was a real big supporter of her husband…”
Azulay writes back with distressing news.
From: Avner. To: Fink, Robert, NY.
“Bob, having Leah Rabin call is not a bad idea. The problem is how do we contact her? She died last November … ’’
Eventually, Quinn secures a letter and congenial phone call to Clinton from Rabin’s daughter, who doesn’t really know Rich. Their best hopes seem to be evaporating. Perhaps Rich was right about Quinn, after all.
First Catch Your Foxman
The scene shifts to a crowded restaurant in Paris. It’s Valentine’s Day. Two men are having dinner and drinking wine. They know each other well. One man has just received a $100,000 contribution from the other man’s boss. The man on the receiving end of the money is Abe Foxman, and the financial gift was for his group the Anti-Defamation League. The man picking up the hefty dinner tab is Avner Azulay – though Marc Rich will soon reimburse him.
Rich has one last shot, Foxman advises. They need to get directly to Bill and Hillary. And the key to unlocking the inner doors of the White House, Foxman told Azulay, is Denise Rich. Foxman confided that he and Denise had flown together on Air Force II to the funeral of Yitzak Rabin.
There was just one problem. Denise Rich still loathed her husband.
Entreaties are made to Denise, now a New York socialite and successful songwriter, by Quinn and others on the Rich teams. Three times “Denise Rich declines to come to the rescue of her former husband.
Then suddenly, in November 2000, she agrees to help. What made her change her mind?
That remains open to speculation, but given Marc Rich’s history and Denise’s view that she was shortchanged in the divorce, it may well have involved a financial offering. This much is known. On November 16, Avner Azulay flies to New York and takes Denise to dinner. He pleads for her to back Rich’s pardon to her friends Bill and Hillary. Two days later Denise consents.
Denise calls her close friend Beth Dozoretz for help in the best way to handle the matter. Another rich Manhattan socialite, Dozoretz had been the finance chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Dozoretz had contributed more than $1 million to Democratic coffers. Bill Clinton was the godfather of her daughter.
Dozoretz who, like Denise Rich, would later plead the Fifth at a Senate hearing in the matter, helped Rich craft her strategy. Almost immediately, a check for $25,000 was sent from Denise Rich’s account to the DNC. This was soon followed by Denise Rich’s first letter to the Clintons, imploring them to pardon her ex-husband. Dozoretz also helped Rich bundle a $450,000 contribution to the Clinton library fund. (A Democratic fundraiser told the New York Times in 2001 that Denise had also pledged another million in four installments over the next two years. This figure was disputed by Denise Rich. But the donor lists to the Clinton Foundation are kept secret.) In all, Denise Rich made at least $1.1 million in contributions to Democratic causes, including $70,000 to Hillary’s Senate campaign and PACs, and at least $450,000 to the Clinton foundation.
For her part, Dozoretz kicked in another million of her own money to the fund. This is the same library that now refuses to release more than 300 pages of Clinton’s records relating to the pardon. She later lavished gifts on the Clintons as they left the White House, including antique furniture for the new home and golf clubs for Bill.
As Dozoretz and Denise Rich plotted their strategy, Quinn and Azulay sought another opening. In a December 19, 2000, email to Quinn, Azulay emphasizes the importance of Hillary’s role in the affair. She has just been elected senator from New York, where Rich was indicted. If there was to be fallout, it might backfire on Hillary. She would need reassurance. Dozoretz and Denise would provide financial aid, but she might also need political cover. Azulay recommends Abraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset. “Burg is on very friendly terms with Hilary (sic) and knows POTUS from previous contacts.”
The next night there’s a party at the White House honoring Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones and Maya Angelou. Dozoretz and Denise are invited, and Denise lands a plum seat at the presidential table. Denise is wearing a burgundy ball gown trimmed in fox fur. She eats little and talks less. After dinner, Denise espies Bill having an intimate conversation with Streisand. She rushes across the room, cuts in on Babs and whisks Bill away. She makes an impassioned plea for the ex-husband , who had humiliated her, stuffs a letter into Bill’s hand and whispers, “I could not bear it were I to learn you did not see my letter.”
When Denise arrives home, she makes a call to Lucerne. It’s the first time she has talked to Marc Rich since the divorce. She describes her meeting with Clinton. Her friends say she ended the conversation by telling Rich: “You owe me.”
A week later the Rich team is getting antsy. There’s still been no word on how Hillary feels. Rich’s New York attorney Robert Fink sends an email to Quinn: “Of all the options we discussed, the only one that seems to have real potential for making a difference is the Hillary option.”
Quinn, Dozoretz, Burg and, perhaps, Denise call Hillary’s people. They are told that the senator needs cover. According to a December 26 email from Azulay titled “Chuck Schumer”: “Hillary shall feel more at ease if she is joined by her elder sen. of NY, who also represents the Jewish population.”
Gershon Kekst leaps at the opportunity, firing an email to Fink looking for Schumer’s pressure points:
“Can Quinn tell us who is close enough to lean on Schumer?? I am willing to call him but have no real clout. Jack might be able to tell us who the top contributors are … maybe Bernard Schwartz??”
Bernard Schwartz was a good guess. The former CEO of Loral (a Friend of Bill and Marc Rich) was a top DNC contributor and had lavished money on both Schumer and Hillary. Schwartz also donated $1 million to the Clinton library fund.
But Quinn had been around Washington a long time. He knew enough not to trust Schumer, a famous media hog who was already showing signs of being jealous of the attention Hillary was getting. Quinn notes: “I have to believe that the contact with HRC can happen w/o him after all, we are not looking for a public show of support from her.”
Calls continue to flood the Clinton White House. The King of Spain. Sandy Berger. Ehud Barak.
Meanwhile, Denise and Beth are skiing in Aspen. Beth’s phone rings. It’s Bill Clinton. Clinton tells Dozoretz, “I want to do it and am trying to get around the White House counsel.” Keep praying, Bill told the women. He also let them know that Michael Milken wasn’t getting a pardon.
A few days later, the two women are back in Washington. It’s now January 19, 2001. Jack Quinn is sitting at a board meeting of Fanny Mae. He quietly types a message to Denise on his Blackberry. (It’s not known if he bills both clients for this hour of his time.) The text message urges Denise to make one last call to Bill. Quinn tells her not to “argue merits” but merely to explain to Clinton that “it is important to me personally.”
Though both women will later dispute it, the Secret Service logs show that the next afternoon at 5:30, Beth and Denise were admitted to the private quarters of the White House. This was Denise’s nineteenth visit to the White House. Beth had visited the White House 76 times in merely the last two years. The logs do not record when the women departed. This is the encounter that appears to have consummated the pardon.
At 2:30 in the morning on January 20, Clinton gets a call from his National Security Advisor. Marc Rich’s name has surfaced in an intelligence file in connection with an international arms smuggling network. Clinton calls Quinn. Quinn says the allegations are bogus. Bill turns to his staff, all of whom oppose the pardon that is now being signed. “Take Jack’s word,” Clinton snapped. Later Clinton will claim to have been “sleep deprived” when he signed the pardon, an excuse that his wife would resurrect to explain her fabulation of her landing under sniper fire in Bosnia.
Marc Rich bought his pardon and, until his death in 2013, flew freely around the world in his private jet, while Leonard Peltier languishes in prison with no hope of release. That pretty much sums up Clintonism for me.
This article is adapted from a piece that ran in the March 2008 edition of CounterPunch magazine.