Washington The U.S. attorney in New York has opened a criminal investigation to determine if President Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive commodities broker Marc Rich was secured with illegal payments, sources in the federal government said Wednesday.
The decision by Mary Jo White, a Democratic appointee, to investigate the Rich pardon came just a day after President Bush criticized congressional reviews of the matter, saying it was "time to move on."
Bush's remark dampened interest within the Justice Department for a criminal investigation, said one source familiar with the matter, which in turn prompted White to act.
"Mary Jo feels like (her office has) been after this guy for more than 15 years, and now this has really ticked her off," said the source, who spoke on condition on anonymity.
This official said it was unclear whether White was opening a full grand-jury investigation into the matter, or whether she would instead conduct a more limited review.
Among the matters her office is likely to examine are deposits of money into the bank accounts of songwriter Denise Rich, the fugitive's former wife, and the timing of her roughly $1 million in contributions to Democratic candidates and causes.
Denise Rich also has contributed $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library fund, and last year she made gifts of furniture to the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In response to questions from a House committee reviewing the pardon, Denise Rich last week invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The House Government Reform Committee has been considering offering her a grant of immunity to testify, but a source close to the investigation said that decision would be delayed for at least a week to allow members to see what comes of White's investigation.
Clinton also weighed in on the matter Wednesday night. He issued a statement defending his pardon of Rich, and said his decision was based on the merits of the case.
"As I have said repeatedly, I made the decision to pardon Marc Rich based on what I thought was the right thing to do," Clinton said. "Any suggestion that improper factors, including fund-raising for the DNC or my library, had anything to do with the decision are absolutely false. I look forward to cooperating with any appropriate inquiry."
Both actions capped another day of congressional testimony on the Rich pardon.
The Justice Department's pardon attorney told a Senate committee that the White House kept him in the dark about its pardon of Rich and his business partner, never telling him that the two were fugitives in Switzerland who had avoided prosecution in New York for 17 years.
In his first testimony about the controversial pardon, Roger Adams said that he did not learn of President Clinton's impending action until he received a post-midnight phone call in the administration's last hours.
"I was told (by the White House counsel's office) that the only two people on the (clemency) list for whom I needed to obtain record checks were Marc Rich and Pincus Green and that it was expected there would be little information because they had been 'living abroad' for several years," Adams related.
Adams' testimony confirmed the previously disclosed irregularities behind Clinton's most controversial pardon, an eleventh-hour action that has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats as legally improper and politically driven.