Washington Top advisers to former president Bill Clinton testified Thursday that they strongly opposed his decision to pardon fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich and described a frantic few weeks when the White House was so swamped with clemency petitions that the staff couldn't keep up.
Several days before Clinton's departure, Chief of Staff John Podesta and counsel Beth Nolan were so confident Rich would be denied a pardon that they considered his request "dead," they told a congressional hearing. But an inauguration eve telephone call from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak helped inspire Clinton to reopen the case.
At Thursday's House Government Reform Committee hearing, fund-raiser Beth Dozoretz who advocated clemency for Rich and pledged to raise $1 million for the Clinton presidential library refused to answer questions, citing the investigation of the pardon by federal prosecutors in New York.
Other witnesses and newly released documents expanded the portrait of a pardons process in which orderly procedure fell victim to a last-minute scramble for access. Clemency petitions, along with calls and letters of support, poured into the White House in December and January. Nolan, in her first public comments on the pardons, described a failed effort in early January to block new clemency requests.
"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."
Podesta said the White House received scores of letters from members of Congress alone. He also said most of the 176 pardons and commutations were handled efficiently and completed well before the end of Clinton's term
The waning days seemed like "absolute chaos," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee's ranking Democrat. He criticized Clinton for "a shameful lapse" and failing to use "sound judgment," adding, "The failures in the pardon process should embarrass every Democrat and every American."
Committee members, given their first chance to question senior White House staffers, pressed them for any links between clemency and fund-raising. Most prominently, Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, gave more than $1.5 million to Democratic causes and the Clinton library.
Bruce Lindsey, counsel and a longtime Clinton friend, said he strongly opposed the pardon because Marc Rich was a fugitive. Clinton considered that "a factor," he said, "but for me, it was the beginning and end."
Lindsey said the Rich pardon was not discussed in connection with donations at any meeting he attended. Rich attorney Jack Quinn, former White House counsel, said he told Dozoretz before and after the clemency grant not to discuss the pardons in connection with any financial contributions.
Republican committee members questioned the advisers about the presence during the administration's final days of Cheryl Mills, Clinton's former deputy counsel, who had already quit for a job in the private sector. Mills, visiting the White House, answered the telephone when Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams called on Jan. 20 and joined an important Jan. 19 discussion in the Oval Office on pardons.
Lindsey testified that the meeting concerned Clinton's desire to pardon individuals convicted in independent counsel investigations that had been part of Mills' White House portfolio. The Rich case came up and Mills asked questions without taking a stand for or against, he said.
Committee members noted Mills is a board member of the Clinton library foundation and asked whether Mills' presence indicated a potential nexus between the Rich case and library fundraising.
Thursday's testimony revealed a president who was anxious in his final year to increase clemency grants. Nolan said she had pushed Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder to speed the process, to little avail, and by late autumn, pardon-seekers understood they lacked the time to apply through the standard Justice procedure.
Nolan said she considered a handful of cases likely to cause problems for Clinton. She also said she concluded immediately that Rich should not be pardoned. After she, Lindsey and Podesta met with Clinton on Jan. 16, she believed Clinton agreed with them.
Asked why Clinton overrode his most senior advisors and pardoned an accused tax evader who spent 17 years abroad rather than face a New York jury, Nolan said the decision was the president's prerogative.
"The president is the president, sir," said Nolan.
Rich's attorneys have said they began discussing a pardon last fall. But an e-mail discovered by congressional investigators suggests the clemency bid was incubated earlier. In February 2000, Avner Azulay, the pardon's leading strategist, rejected the notion of Rich surrendering to New York authorities.
"The present impasse leaves us with only one other option," Azulay wrote.
Rich's attorney Quinn said it's "conceivable" the discussion may have happened about a year ago, but he repeated his assertion that the lawyers held no formal discussions until fall 2000.
Nolan testified that when she discussed the Rich case with Holder in early January, Holder said "he did not think we would hear an objection from main justice."
The committee also heard testimony that Podesta was lobbied by his personal attorney, Peter Kadzik, who had been hired by Rich. Letters released by the committee indicate Podesta may have been relaying information about the status of the Rich case to Kadzik.
Podesta said he met with Kadzik in the White House but told him he did not support the pardon.
Meanwhile, Tennessee carnival company owner E.A. "Ed" Gregory said Thursday that he and his wife, Mary Jo, received clemency on bank felonies last year after Clinton's brother-in-law, Tony Rodham, urged the president to pardon him, as first reported in the New York Times. Rodham is a paid consultant to their company, but Gregory said there was no pardon fee.
"I said, 'Tony, if there's anything you could do to help us with the pardon, we'd appreciate it,' " Ed Gregory recalled telling Rodham around Christmas 1999.
Lindsey testified that Rodham spoke with him about the Gregory case, urging him to move it forward, and that Rodham had talked with Clinton on the matter.
The Gregorys have been friends with the Clintons since the 1980s, staged several carnivals at the White House during the Clinton years, and stayed at Camp David.
"The president felt Ed Gregory has served his debt to society and needed this help to do business," said a source close to Clinton. "He said, 'It's been 20 years and I'm going to do this.' "