Seven years ago, after his name was dragged very publicly through the mud in a Clinton administration pardon scandal, President-elect Barack Obama’s top pick for attorney general was certain that his long and successful career in public service was at an end.
“I’m done. Public life’s over for me,” Eric H. Holder Jr. told the Washington Post in March 2001. “I had a moment in time. That moment has passed.”
Holder, who had been President Clinton’s deputy attorney general, appears to have been wrong. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Holder “will be the pick,” one Democratic official close to the Obama transition team said Wednesday. But his much-disputed role in Clinton’s pardons, particularly that of fugitive financier Marc Rich, is coming back to haunt him.
On Wednesday, some Republicans began gearing up for a fight, saying Holder would face tough questioning over his role in Clinton’s pardon of Rich in the waning hours of his administration in 2001.
“There are a lot of concerns among Senate GOP members about this selection, if indeed these rumors are true” that Obama has made his choice, said one senior staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department.
An e-mail circulated Wednesday by the Republican National Committee accused Holder of having “a long history of controversial pardons,” particularly in the Rich case.
The e-mail resurrected charges levied primarily by Republican investigators at the time that Holder gave at least a partial endorsement of the Rich pardon in the hopes that former White House counsel Jack Quinn would help Holder get a job as the attorney general in a future administration of Al Gore, who was vice president at the time. Quinn had been Gore’s counsel and chief of staff at the White House, and was close to Clinton as well.
“You wanted something from Mr. Quinn. You wanted his support for attorney general of the United States, and he wanted a pardon for Mr. Rich and his partner,” Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, the Republican chairman of the House panel investigating the pardons, told Holder during one hearing in 2001.
In response, Holder insisted that he didn’t know about Quinn’s pardon plans when he had a discussion with him about the attorney general’s job, and that his actions “were in no way affected” by his desire to become attorney general.
House Republicans ultimately concluded that Holder and Quinn had worked together to cut the Justice Department out of the decision-making process. The Republicans cited evidence that included one cryptic e-mail from Quinn to an associate in which he quoted Holder as telling him to “go straight to wh. [White House]” in seeking the pardon.
Holder denied having said that. Whatever the case, Quinn succeeded in persuading Clinton to pardon Rich, essentially by cutting out of the loop the many officials at the Justice Department who probably would have vehemently opposed such a pardon.
Rich, a millionaire commodities broker, had fled the United States in 1983, one step ahead of a criminal indictment charging him with what one prosecutor described as “the biggest tax-fraud case in the history of the United States.”
When a White House lawyer called Holder on the last day of the Clinton administration, Holder said he was “neutral, leaning toward favorable” about the pardon. Later, he said he was unaware of some aspects of Rich’s background.
Clinton and his aides said Holder’s input was a factor in the decision to pardon Rich, whose ex-wife, Denise, was a frequent visitor to the White House and a major donor to Democratic campaigns and to Clinton’s presidential library.
In sworn testimony before Congress, Holder defended his conduct as completely ethical. He said he was swamped with other pressing matters on his last day in office, including preparations to take over as acting attorney general in the incoming Bush administration until John Ashcroft was sworn in.
But Holder said that he wished he had asked more questions about the Rich case, and that he would have been opposed to a pardon if he had obtained more information at the time.
“I wish there were things I would have done differently,” he said.
Frances Townsend, another senior Justice Department official at the time, told The Times that Holder took all of the right steps to vet the request, including calling her and others to get their input.
“Eric was put in a difficult position by getting a phone call at the last minute, but handled it appropriately,” said Townsend, who was more recently President Bush’s top counter-terrorism and domestic security official.
The Republican staffer said that many senators and others on the Senate Judiciary Committee were puzzled and unhappy Wednesday over the fact that they had not been contacted by Obama transition team members to gauge their support for or opposition to Holder.
“It’s strange. No one has reached out to us, members or staff level, so we take this with a certain grain of skepticism,” said the staffer, who was not authorized to comment publicly and so spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“It could be a float,” or an effort to see how Holder fares in the court of public approval without the Obama team taking responsibility for it, the Republican staffer said.
The Democratic official close to the transition team denied that, and said that Obama associates had done some temperature gauging on the Hill, but mostly among influential Democrats.
In its e-mail, the RNC said: “Instead of bringing the bipartisan ‘change’ to Washington that he promised voters, Barack Obama is rewarding yet another one of his political loyalists in Eric Holder. The only person who thinks Eric Holder represents ‘hope’ is Marc Rich.”
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was troubled by the Rich pardon. He did not intend to hold up Holder’s confirmation over it, he told MSNBC, but said “it is an issue that has to be inquired into.”
“We’re going to take a very, very close look at his record,” especially at Holder’s role in the final days of the Clinton administration, Specter said, “with focus on the Marc Rich pardon, where there had been very, very large contributions” by Denise Rich.
“Rich was a fugitive,” he said. “They did not follow regular order. And we’ll want to know, in some detail . . . what Mr. Holder had to do with that.”
There are other Clinton-era actions that Republicans pledged they would look into as well, including leniency granted in 1999 to 16 former members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, which advocates Puerto Rican independence and was linked to about 130 bombings that killed six and injured dozens from 1974 to 1983.
Former President Carter, a Democrat, has said that many other Clinton pardons “were quite questionable, including about 40 not recommended by the Justice Department.”