Eric Holder’s intercession on behalf of fugitive Marc Rich is so inexplicable that he has always viewed ignorance as his best defense. It’s as though Holder believes that a deputy attorney general looks better for having remained studiously unaware of critical facts in a criminal case before throwing his weight around. But that’s Holder’s story, and he’s sticking to it: even if it turns out not to be true.
Holder is President Obama’s choice to become attorney general. That means the Rich case is a big problem for him today–just as it was in 2001, when an outraged Congress demanded an explanation of the controversial affair. President Clinton had pardoned the fugitive financier on the recommendation of Holder, who was then deputy attorney general. The only feeble response Holder could muster was that he didn’t really know much about Rich’s case and that, as Justice’s number two official, he was simply too busy to learn about it.
Clearly, the nominee has calculated that there’s something worse than championing a presidential pardon for a guy like Rich, and that’s knowingly championing such a pardon.
1999: ‘MR. RICH’S NAME WAS UNFAMILIAR TO ME.’ If Holder were to admit familiarity with Rich’s background at the time of the pardon, he would be admitting he knew that Rich, once among the FBI’s “ten most wanted” fugitives, stood accused of racketeering, defrauding the Treasury out of tens of millions of dollars, and trading with our nation’s enemies–including Iran, which Rich supplied with desperately needed funds while Khomeini’s embargoed regime held American hostages.
That won’t do. Holder realizes that, in these kinds of cases, the public expects prosecutions, not pardons. In the 15 years prior to Holder’s tenure as deputy attorney general, the Justice Department had chased Rich around the globe, determined to apprehend and convict him–just as it had convicted his confederates and his corporations. The public doesn’t expect, and wouldn’t lightly tolerate, a more clement approach. That is why the Rich pardon brought universal condemnation. It is also why Holder has determined that claiming ignorance–though embarrassing–is his only viable strategy.
In 2001, when Holder was summoned before Congress, he testified that he hadn’t even known who Rich was back in 1999. That’s when the fugitive’s powerhouse lawyer, former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn, beseeched Holder to lean on federal prosecutors who were not inclined to negotiate with the agents of a fugitive.
“Mr. Rich’s name was unfamiliar to me,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, under oath, on February 14, 2001. Despite this purported dearth of knowledge, Holder readily acceded to the request that he “facilitate a meeting” at which Quinn could try to persuade “the U.S. Attorney’s office to drop the charges.” What’s more, Holder told the Senate, he had “gained only a passing familiarity with the underlying facts of the Rich case” when, months afterward, he began providing invaluable assistance to Quinn’s pursuit of Rich’s pardon.
Holder’s testimony was rambling and often incredible. But he was consistent on the subject of his own ignorance. Indeed, a House investigation concluded that Holder’s “sum total of knowledge about Rich came from a page of talking points provided to him by Jack Quinn in 2000”–talking points that failed to address important aspects of Rich’s background and conduct.
But Holder’s protestations of ignorance do not stand scrutiny. When Quinn first came to him in 1999, he knew exactly who Marc Rich was. For back in 1995, when Holder was the Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, he had sued a company precisely because it was substantially controlled by Rich–a fact the company concealed in order to obtain lucrative government contracts.
1995: MR. RICH’S NAME WAS PRETTY FAMILIAR AFTER ALL To be clear, years before the pardon scandal convinced him it was in his interest to make like he barely knew Rich’s name, Holder had bragged to the media about how his office was cracking down on Rich, an international fugitive who had duped the government out of loads of cash. Contrary to his congressional testimony that he’d never heard of Rich before 1999, Holder had unquestionably been aware of Rich’s name and history four years earlier; in fact, it was solely because of Rich that Holder extracted a $1.2 million settlement in a federal civil action.