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Thursday, 15 February, 2001, 23:54 GMT
The Rich affair: A tangled web
Bill Clinton in New York
Clinton might emerge smiling once again
By Paul Reynolds in Washington

You have to hand it to Bill Clinton. He can turn disaster into triumph - and triumph into disaster. And somehow he survives it all.

He managed to turn the disaster of impeachment into a claim that he was defending the constitution.

And now his triumph in granting a pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich is turning into dust.

The pardon, or rather the finances surrounding it, are the subject of a federal inquiry by the US Attorney in New York, Mary Jo White. She represents the same office which got the indictments of Marc Rich in 1983, on numerous charges of tax evasion and fraud and breaking a trade embargo with Iran.

And she was ignored by Bill Clinton when, in the last hours of his presidency, he pondered and decided the Rich and other cases.

Constitutional powers

Not that he had to consult anyone. The Constitution is quite clear. Article Two, Section Two, Clause One says that (the President) "shall have the Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment". Nothing there about consulting Mary Jo White.

Marc Rich
Marc Rich: Helped by powerful friends
So Bill Clinton is on strong ground and it is very hard to see how he can be brought down. There would have to be a clear paper trail of money leading to his door and directly linked to the pardon before the authorities could even consider laying any corruption charges, even if such charges were possible in cases of pardons.

The cirumstances may be suspicious and even the Democrats accept that, without powerful friends, Marc Rich would never have been pardoned.

But Mr Clinton says he decided on the merits, and the case does have merits.

Rich bought oil cheaply from Iran during the American embargo during the hostage crisis, and sold it high.

Justifiable pardon?

He was charged where others were not. He has paid $200m in fines and penalties on some of the charges.

He has waived the right to insist on the statute of limitations for any civil action against him.

Jack Quinn
Jack Quinn: Rich's lawyer had a hand in the lobbying
His friends in Israel argued strongly on his behalf. He has given to charities there, and there are suggestions that he helped the Israelis with intelligence abroad.

So Mr Clinton can justify the pardon.

On the other hand, Rich's former wife Denise has given lavishly to the Democratic party, to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, to Bill's presidential library - and she even gave $7,000 worth of furniture to the first couple as they set up home in New York.

Denise was lobbying on behalf of her ex-husband. Jack Quinn, Rich's lawyer and a former White counsel and friend of Bill, told her to.

It was all so cosy. And it doesn't look so good.

Did some of this money come from Rich? And why has Denise invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination?

Denise in the spotlight

In fact, it could be Denise Rich and not Bill Clinton who has most to fear. And it is also possible that the prosecutors might find new charges to lay at Mr Rich's door by his lakeside in Switzerland - a country which does not believe in extraditing him.

He claims not to be a US citizen. So if the money came from him, it would be illegal - foreigners are not allowed to make political contributions to American parties.

But if he is a US citizen, was this money declared as part of his income, to be subject to tax?

Mary Jo White has a tangled web to unweave.

See also:

15 Feb 01 | Americas
Clinton faces criminal inquiry
15 Feb 01 | Americas
Q&A: Clinton pardon row
14 Feb 01 | Americas
Senate probes Clinton pardons
26 Jan 01 | Americas
Clinton gifts under scrutiny
20 Jan 01 | Americas
Clinton pardons 100
13 Feb 01 | Americas
Cloud follows Clinton
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