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Pardon charges could be hard to prove

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(CNN) -- The federal prosecutor investigating President Clinton pardon's of billionaire financier Marc Rich could have a difficult time building a criminal case, experts say.

Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced Thursday that her office and the FBI have launched an investigation because "various questions have been raised concerning the activities and pardons of Marc Rich and Pincus Green." Green is Rich's business partner.

Rich's former wife, Denise Rich, is a prominent Democratic fundraiser who has raised about $1 million for the party. She also gave $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library fund and contributed money to Hillary Rodham Clinton's successful Senate campaign. In her life away from politics, she is a successful songwriter who has worked with artists such as Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion.

Critics have suggested that her donations could have influenced Clinton's decision to grant the pardon.

Former federal prosecutor Jonathan Polkes told CNN's "Burden of Proof" that prosecutors would have to find a direct link between the contributions and the pardon to prove criminal wrongdoing.

"If theoretically, you had a videotape of Denise Rich telling President Clinton, 'I'll give $450,000 to your presidential library if you pardon my husband' -- if you can prove something like that, sure you would have a criminal case," Polkes said.

Polkes said that building a circumstantial case would be difficult.

"It was perfectly legal for her to give $450,000 to the library, it was perfectly legal for her to raise a million dollars for the DNC, or however much she raised, and it was perfectly legal for Clinton to pardon Marc Rich," Polkes said. "So you have to show more than just the mere coincidence of those events in order to show a crime took place."

He said prosecutors would be trying to find out whether any of the money Denise Rich gave came from Marc Rich or any of his companies, which could be evidence of bribery or money laundering.

Rich was one of 140 people Clinton pardoned in the hours before he left office January 20. The case has created controversy because the Justice Department had listed Rich as an international fugitive.

Federal prosecutors indicted Rich in 1983 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and participation in illegal oil deals with Iran. Before he could face trial, he left the country and settled in Switzerland.

White's office handled the case, and both she and the attorneys who prosecuted Rich said they were never consulted about the pardon.

The Justice Department's pardon attorney, Roger Adams, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that he was not informed by the White House that Rich was a fugitive.

"None of the regular procedures ... were followed," Adams said.

The president does not have any obligation to follow those procedures. Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution says that the president "shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons against the United States."

Margaret Love, former U.S. pardon attorney, said the rules are designed to protect the president.

"Certainly, the president can do whatever he wants but the way to do that is to follow the procedures and that makes the suspicions much less," Love said.

Marc Rich is represented by former White House counsel Jack Quinn, a fact that has led critics to charge that Quinn used his influence with Clinton to win the pardon.

Quinn told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he understood "there are appearance problems here," but he said the pardon was granted on the "merits of the case."

In a statement Wednesday night, Clinton defended the pardon.

"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 fundraising 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."

CNN's Phil Hirschkorn, Jonathan Karl, Kelli Arena and Eileen O'Connor contributed to this report



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