Marc Rich, the trader known as the “King of Commodities” whose controversial 2001 pardon by President Clinton just hours before he left office unleashed a political firestorm of criticism, died Wednesday. He was 78.
The billionaire trader in oil, metals and other commodities died of a stroke in a hospital in Lucerne, Switzerland, according to the Marc Rich Group.
Rich fled from the United States to Switzerland in 1983 after he was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury on more than 50 counts of fraud, racketeering, trading with Iran during the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis and evading more than $48 million in income taxes — crimes that could have earned him more than 300 years in prison.
He remained on the FBI’s Most Wanted List until Clinton granted him a pardon Jan. 20, 2001 — the day he left the White House.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Rich’s ex-wife, songwriter Denise Rich, gave $201,000 in political donations to the Democratic Party in 2000 as lawyers for the fugitive financier pressed the U.S. government to drop the case. Rich’s attorneys turned to Clinton when the Justice Department refused to negotiate.
Federal authorities investigated but found no evidence of wrongdoing, while election officials also dismissed a complaint accusing Denise Rich of donating campaign money and furniture to Hillary Rodham Clinton in exchange for the pardon. Bill Clinton also denied any wrongdoing and said he acted on advice by prominent legal experts not connected to the trader. Eric Holder, the current U.S. attorney general, was deputy attorney general to Clinton, and recommended Rich’s pardon.
Rich was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on Dec. 18, 1934. His Jewish family fled from the Nazis to the United States.
After dropping out of New York University, Rich went to work for the commodity traders Phillips Brothers, now called Phibro, in New York. He quickly got the knack of trading and in 1967 was sent by the company to work in Madrid, where he met Pincus “Pinky” Green, his future partner.
In 1973, Rich and Green left the company and set up Marc Rich and Co., based in the Swiss town of Zug, whose low taxes have made it one of the world’s oil trading centers. Rich specialized in acting as a middleman for purchases in global trouble spots — such as Iran, apartheid-era South Africa, Cuba and Libya during U.S. trade embargoes.
Rich and Green were the first traders to use short-term purchases, now known as the spot market, to quickly make big money. Buying large volumes when the price was low, they were able to control the market when prices rose.
After Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983, his companies pleaded guilty to the charges filed against him, paying fines of about $130 million.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Rich said. “But the question is, was there crime? And I’m saying I don’t think so.”
Swiss authorities did not consider the charges grounds for extradition.
Rich worked on making himself popular by becoming a major philanthropist, giving money to the arts and charities in the hope of building good contacts and guarding against extradition. He renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Israel and Spain.
Rich had married the former Denise Eisenberg, a New York socialite, in 1966. They divorced in 1992. After that she contributed $450,000 to Clinton’s presidential library foundation and more than $100,000 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign.
In 1993, Rich sold his own company —renamed Glencore, now the world’s largest commodity trader — and set up a new firm, Marc Rich and Co. Holding, also based in Zug.
Rich married again, to Gisela Rossi, in 1998. They divorced in 2005. His survivors include two daughters, Ilona Schachter-Rich and Danielle Kilstock Rich. Another daughter, Gabrielle, died of leukemia in 1996.