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Clinton's Unpardonable Action

February 11, 2001

Then-President Bill Clinton's eleventh-hour pardon of financier Marc Rich, who fled the country in 1983 to avoid answering to a range of criminal charges, was more than an instance of bad judgment by a man to whom ethical lapses seem second nature. Evidence mounts that it was instead a calculated payoff for political favors past and present, including, according to one Democratic source, a promised $1-million gift to Clinton's presidential library by Rich's former wife. Last week a House committee held hearings on the pardon, and this week a Senate committee takes its turn. This is not a case of the Clinton haters relentlessly stalking their favorite quarry even into retirement, at least not yet. This is a case of an abuse of authority that undermined justice.

There is little that Congress can do except try to expose what underlay the pardon Clinton granted Rich. A president's clemency power is absolute and irrevocable. Those who talk of amending the Constitution to abridge that power are overreacting; the ethically clouded behavior of one president doesn't warrant overriding the wisdom of the Constitution's framers. Congress might focus instead on strengthening the rules and procedures usually involved with clemency appeals. In 47 of the 176 pardons and commutations that Clinton issued, the Justice Department was bypassed.

Rich became a fugitive rather than face prosecution on more than 50 counts of tax evasion, wire fraud and illegal trading with Iran and other countries. Jack Quinn, his lawyer and--not irrelevantly--Clinton's former White House counsel, argues that Rich fled because the case against him "was flawed" and in any event he would not have been able to get a fair trial. If those became accepted justifications for flight, the criminal courts could shut their doors and the prisons would be empty.

Quinn and Clinton both know that the justice system allows ample scope to challenge the merits of a prosecution. Rich instead chose to wage his fight from luxurious exile in Switzerland. And Clinton, more than 17 years later, chose to ignore the facts of the case and the objections of federal prosecutors to do a self-serving political favor.

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