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Holder faces grilling on Marc Rich pardon

Eric Holder
Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder: "You're now implying that I've done something essentially corrupt and I will not accept that."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The former second in command at the Justice Department faced some tough questioning Thursday about his role in former President Bill Clinton's decision to pardon billionaire financier Marc Rich.

Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Committee on Governmental Reform that he told then-White House counsel Beth Nolan that he was "neutral" about the Rich pardon because he did not know enough about the case to form an opinion.

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Holder said Nolan later told him that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had asked Clinton to grant the pardon. Holder said he told Nolan that if that were the case, then he would be neutral, but leaning towards favorable, if there were national security benefits.

Rich had been charged with wire fraud, tax evasion and illegal oil deals with Iran. He moved to Switzerland in 1983, shortly before he was indicted in what the lead prosecutor in the case called the largest tax fraud case in U.S. history.

Holder said he did not give the case much thought, because he did not think the pardon would be granted. He said he now wishes that he had looked into it more thoroughly.

The case has generated controversy because Rich's former wife is a prominent donor, who gave roughly $1 million dollars to the Democratic Party and has donated money to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign and former President Clinton's planned presidential library.

Several committee members asked why Holder offered an opinion when he was not familiar with the case. Georgia Republican Bob Barr compared the situation to the Keystone Cops and questioned whether Holder had used "deliberate ignorance."

That prompted an angry response from Holder.

"I will stand here and have people say and have people say that I've made a mistake, and I'll debate that. But you're now implying that I've done something essentially corrupt and I will not accept that. That I will not accept."

Prosecutors were not informed

The former lead prosecutor in the case said he was outraged by the decision to pardon Rich and his business partner Pincus Green.

Morris "Sandy" Weinberg, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said he was not consulted about the case.

"It appears that the president received no input from anyone who had knowledge of the case from the prosecution side," Weinberg said.

Weinberg testified that if he had been asked, he would have said "there were probably two no more unsuited people for a presidential pardon than Marc Rich and Pincus Green."

He said Rich had shown no contrition, and had renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid extradition from Switzerland.

Rich's attorney Jack Quinn testified that he took the pardon request to the Clinton because he believed that the prosecution case against Rich was a "legal house of cards."

"The case was based on a meritless tax charge, which formed the basis for the fraud charge, which was the predicate for the RICO," Quinn testified. "It was a misuse of RICO on top of misuse of RICO predicates and underlying it all, a tax and energy case with no merit. The case was flawed." RICO refers the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Quinn said Rich fled the country because he feared he would not be able to get a fair trial. He argued that Rich was prosecuted for what should have been a civil case.

Weinberg said the case against Rich was strong 17 years ago, and is still strong today.

"If this case was so meritless, why didn't they come back? Why didn't they face the charges? I mean, the fact of the matter is that they didn't come back because they knew that the charges were so overwhelming, in my opinion," Weinberg said.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, asked Quinn if he was concerned about some of the countries Rich has worked with, including Iran during the hostage crisis and with South Africa during the apartheid era. "And if didn't matter to you, should it have mattered to the president of the United States?" Shays asked.

Shays also said it appeared that former President Clinton had pardoned two traitors.

Rich's ex-wife would not appear

Burton said he had asked Denise Rich to appear at Thursday's hearing, but she declined, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Burton said he will seek immunity for Denise Rich to force her testimony before the committee looking into that pardon

"I find it very, very troubling that in a case like this where the public simply wants an explanation, that its central figure would take the Fifth Amendment," Burton said.

An attorney for Ms. Rich, Martin Pollner, said in a statement to CNN that his client has been advised not to respond to the committee "until her attorneys have had sufficient opportunity to review all of the relevant facts and circumstances."

"Ms. Rich has done nothing wrong with regard to the pardon and knows of no wrongdoing by others in the requesting and granting of the pardon," Pollner added.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a hearing next week on the pardons Clinton granted during his last days in office. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who requested the hearing, will introduce an amendment to the Constitution this week that would give Congress the power to overturn a presidential pardon, if the amendment is ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Under Specter's amendment, a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate would be required to undo a presidential pardon. It also would make the Justice Department's regulations on pardons binding on the president.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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