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Bush criticizes Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush Monday criticized his predecessor's decision to pardon Marc Rich, who fled the country almost two decades ago after being indicted on tax evasion and fraud charges.

"I am troubled by the decision the president made," Bush told reporters during a brief question-and-answer session in the Oval Office. "I would not have made that decision, but nevertheless he was the president. He had the right to do so, to make that decision, and he did."

Former President Clinton issued 140 pardons just hours before he left office January 20, a move that generated some criticism. But Rich's pardon in particular has set off a storm of controversy, and even some Democrats have criticized the pardon as inappropriate.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said the pardon gave the wrong appearance, noting that Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, is a fundraiser for the Democratic Party.

"I do not question the motives, nor do I know the motives for the president pardoning Mr. Rich," McCain said. "I do know that there's a terrible appearance of impropriety when a million dollars in soft money is given by the ex-wife of a fugitive from justice."

McCain spoke at a press conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, to promote his campaign finance reform legislation with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin.

Asked about that pardon, Bush made his point clear. "I didn't agree with the decision," he said.

At the same time, Bush stressed Clinton had the constitutional authority to issue the pardon, and he suggested he would not approve of any changes to that executive privilege.

"I'm going to protect that privilege, not only for me, but for future presidents as well," Bush said.

Clinton's pardons included Whitewater figure Susan McDougal, former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, ex-CIA chief John Deutsch and publishing heiress Patty Hearst.

Clinton has defended the pardons, saying the public should be "open-minded" about the cases and the use of that executive privilege.

"The word 'pardon' is somehow, almost a misnomer," Clinton said in Chappaqua, New York, on the day after he left office. "You're not saying these people didn't commit the offense. You're saying they paid. They paid in full."

As such, Clinton added, the people should be awarded their full citizenship rights, including voting.

Rich had been listed on the Department of Justice's Web site as an international fugitive, Marc David Rich. The 66-year-old Belgium native, who holds citizenship in the United States, Spain and Israel, fled the United States in 1983 after being indicted for wire fraud, racketeering and income tax evasion. He was also charged with violating trade restrictions with Iran at the time the government in Tehran was holding U.S. diplomats as hostages. He lives in Switzerland.

A House committee has launched an investigation into that pardon.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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