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Clinton Dragging Jewish Figures Down With Him
Israeli and American Jewish leaders continue to figure prominently in the most controversial of a long list of last-minute pardons granted by disgraced former US President Bill Clinton, with three of his key White House aides telling Congress on Thursday that caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak played a decisive role in the appeal for clemency by fugitive financier Marc Rich.
The latest Clinton scandal, widely dubbed "pardongate," involves several contentious pardons and commutations among the 176 granted by the former president on the eve of his exit from office on January 20. Committees in both Houses of the US Congress have been holding hearings on Rich and other pardons, while federal prosecutors have opened new criminal investigations of their own into the Rich case. While a US president has broad powers in this area, the crux of the congressional inquiries is whether Clinton granted pardons in exchange for financial gifts, political contributions or other remuneration.
Marc Rich is a wealthy American Jewish businessman who fled the US for Switzerland 18 years ago to avoid prosecution on racketeering, wire fraud, income-tax evasion, and illegal oil trading charges. Among his alleged offenses, Rich was wanted in one of the largest tax fraud cases ever, and for violating laws that banned trade with Iran even while American hostages were still being held by Islamic militants in Tehran.
Those angered over the Rich pardon say that besides the gravity of his crimes, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting Rich orchestrated a successful campaign for his clemency through substantial donations to the Clinton presidential library, the Democratic party and even the Senate candidacy of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Since fleeing the US in the early 1980s, Rich has ingratiated himself with many prominent Israeli leaders, especially in the Labor party, by giving large sums to charitable causes in Israel and reportedly using his extensive global business ties to help Israeli intelligence with sensitive assignments involving endangered Jewish communities abroad. As a result, a number of leading Israeli politicians, including Barak, sent letters urging Clinton to pardon Rich, citing his generous philanthropy and assistance to the Mossad.
The effort to win a pardon for Rich was spearheaded by Clinton's former White House legal counsel Jack Quinn. Of 71 people who signed letters of support submitted with Rich's pardon application, 48 were prominent Israelis. Another eight were leading American Jews, such as Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the board of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some Jewish leaders, however, refused to cooperate when approached by the Rich legal team, among them noted Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
In a recent column in the NEW YORK TIMES, Clinton defended the Rich pardon as justified on the merits, but also noted he was "profoundly" influenced by the pleas of Barak and other Israeli and American Jewish leaders. However, it was suggested for the first time yesterday that an eleventh-hour appeal by Barak was the key factor in the decision.
Three of Clinton's top White House aides testified before the House Committee on Government Reform yesterday that they believed Clinton had accepted their advice against a Rich pardon, but that the ex-president reversed his decision after a phone conversation with Barak on January 19, the day before Clinton left office. When asked by one legislator if they could verify that the conversation Clinton had with Barak may have impacted his decision, former assistant to the president Bruce Lindsey said, "He actually, I think, indicated that."
Beth Nolan, former counsel to the president, added, "Yes he did. He specifically said that." Nolan continued: "It certainly seemed that he was not going to grant it and that Mr. Barak's phone call had been significant."
Nolan, Lindsey, and former White House chief of staff John Podesta all said they had opposed the last-minute pardon and that up until January 19 they considered it dead in the water, but were surprised when Clinton revived the case just hours before finishing his term. The House panel subpoenaed the three aides in its widening investigation of possible influence peddling or links between campaign donations and the pardon of Rich and others on Clinton's last day in office. Though the two are now divorced, some believe Marc Rich may have been behind recent transfers by his ex-wife Denise Rich of more than $1 million to the Democratic party, including at least $100,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign, plus $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library fund.
Committee Chairman Dan Burton (Rep.-Indiana) said on CNN last night that he had serious doubts as to whether the Barak call on the inaugural eve was the decisive factor in the Rich case, adding that his committee will continue to pursue their investigation into a possible quid-pro-quo of money for pardons.
Podesta and Nolan painted a picture of the Clinton White House swamped with scores of letters and petitions over its final two months requesting presidential clemency. The Rich case and many others were handled outside normal procedures, including Justice Department review.
"They were coming from everywhere," Nolan said. "We had requests from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and both houses. We had requests from movie stars, newscasters, former presidents, former first ladies."
Republican committee members focused on the presence during the administration's final days of Cheryl D. Mills, Clinton's former deputy counsel, who had already quit for a job in the private sector. Mills answered the telephone when the Justice Department's top pardon attorney called on January 20 and also joined in on an important discussion on pardons in the Oval Office on January 19. She is a board member of the Clinton presidential library foundation, and could be the potential link between the Rich case and library fundraising.
A number of letters and e-mail messages among the Rich legal team, led by Quinn, are also being examined by Congress. Several involve cryptic notes between Quinn and other Rich lawyers in New York and Avner Azulay, a former Mossad operative who manages Rich's charitable foundation in Israel. Azulay has publicly described the effort to win a presidential pardon as unsophisticated and spur of the moment, beginning only last November. But e-mails and other documents released by the House Government Reform Committee show Rich began using his Israeli connections as early as 1995 to seek resolution to his US legal problems.
According to a confidential memorandum prepared by the Rich camp, Rich offered to provide economic incentives for the Middle East peace process in return for guarantees of his own freedom of movement, restricted somewhat at the time by an Interpol "Red Alert" due to an outstanding US extradition request. Rich continued to cultivate close connections with senior Israeli politicians and cultural figures, especially through financial contributions to charitable causes. In addition, Israeli officials confirm Rich has performed sensitive services for Israel, serving as a broker for the indirect purchase of badly-needed Arab oil supplies, helping evacuate beleaguered Jews from places such as Ethiopia and providing valuable information to the Mossad.
The Rich Foundation has averaged about $5 million in donations annually to various causes in Israel over the past 20 years, including a $300,000 grant to the Peres Center for Peace, founded by leading dovish politician Shimon Peres. Azulay sits on the board of directors of the Center. Peres, in turn, lobbied Clinton on Rich's behalf, calling the president on December 11, according to e-mails released by Congress. Peres has declined to comment on his role.
The Rich Foundation also gave $100,000 to another pro-Oslo non-profit organization founded by outgoing Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who wrote an appeal to Clinton as well.
Other Israeli institutions that have benefited from Rich's largess range from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra led by Zubin Mehta to the Council for Peace and Security, a group of left-leaning retired military officers led by the former mayor of Tel Aviv, Shlomo Lahat. Both men supported Rich's pardon efforts.
In their 1995 initiative, Peres and other Israeli officials who lobbied the US State Department on Rich's behalf were told by Dennis Ross, Clinton's special Mideast envoy, that he was "a hot potato," too dangerous to touch. Despite their failure, Rich's supporters continued to put great store on the Israel connection, documents show.
Submission of the pardon application was carefully coordinated with senior Israeli officials. On December 11, the same day the request was delivered to the White House, Barak and Peres put in calls to Clinton. In his call, Barak also pushed the case of Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for one count of espionage for Israel, but US officials say it was soon made clear that Pollard's release was out of the question.
Barak mentioned the Rich pardon in at least two other calls to Clinton, according to e-mails and former White House officials. One call was made around January 11, shortly after Rich spent two days in Israel to attend a charitable gala in support of the "Birthright" program, which funds at least one trip to Israel for eligible Jewish youths worldwide. The final call came the day before Clinton left office.
So far, Barak has acknowledged only one of these calls, on January 11, and downplays the Rich request as the last of a long list of items discussed with Clinton. Barak officials deny that he has ever received "direct or indirect" political donations from Rich. During the initial furor caused by the announcement of the pardon, the Rich camp attempted to steer attention away from Barak, who was in the midst of an election campaign that eventually ousted him from office.
In some Israeli circles, Rich's pardon is viewed as a consolation prize for Clinton's refusal to release Pollard, who says he sees it differently. He told the Israeli newspaper YEDIOT AHARONOT that he had made a mistake trying to catch the attention of Israeli politicians by "waving the flag of Israel." Instead, he said, "I should have waved a dollar bill in front of them and convinced them that I had a lot of money."
In another pardon case involving Jewish connections that is drawing attention, Clinton substantially reduced the prison sentences of four hasidic leaders from an insular New York ultra-Orthodox community who were convicted two years ago of stealing tens of millions of government dollars. The US attorney in New York is investigating whether these four commutations were in exchange for the community supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate election. The 4,000 residents of the village of New Square voted en bloc for Ms. Clinton on November 7, in sharp contrast to other ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, the majority of whom supported her opponent, Republican Congressman Ric Lazio.
In another case under close scrutiny, Ms. Clinton's brother, Hugh Rodham, reportedly accepted $400,000 for his lead role in seeking and securing clemency for two convicted bank felons from Tennessee. The pardoned couple now is saying Rodham is a paid consultant to their carnival company, and that there was no separate pardon fee for his assistance.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.