Bribery is not just another lifestyle choice. President Bush seems blithely unaware of this fact, judging by his responses to the troubling possibility that President Clinton exchanged pardons and commutations for money, votes, and even home furnishings.
“This White House is moving forward,“ Bush said to reporters on February 22. “We’ve got a lot to do…And to the extent that the Justice Department looks into this matter, it will be done in a non-political way.”
Bush also expects the once-dependably pro-Clinton news media to probe Pardongate. “I think the press corps will ferret out whatever happened,” Bush told the press corps.
Dan Rather lacks subpoena powers. Bill O’Reilly has no search warrants, alas. Even if Peter Jennings himself discovered a canceled $1 million check from Denise Rich to Bill Clinton that read “Bribe payment for presidential pardon,” the question still would occur: What would the Bush administration do about it? Not much, the president’s signals suggest.
“Bush’s comments saying he wants to move on have created a chilling effect on Justice Department prosecutors,” argues Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm. He points to a February 15 Los Angeles Times article that indicated that Bush’s previous unenthusiastic statements about examining Pardongate “dampened interest within the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.”
It’s easy to sympathize with Bush. He must be enormously frustrated to see President Clinton remain as mired in the limelight as a Goodyear Blimp lodged in the Lincoln Tunnel. While Bush’s allies have every right to feel his pain, Dubya’s discomfort must yield to a serious investigation of possible ties between Clinton’s pardons and any benefits he, his wife, relatives or staffers enjoyed in exchange for them. Every day, it increasingly looks as if President Clinton transformed the Oval Office into the Christie’s of clemency. Neither Bush nor his administration can “move on” until that hypothesis is fully tested.
Accused billionaire tax cheat Marc Rich’s ex-wife Denise famously donated $1.1 million in soft money to Democrats between 1993 and September 2000. She gave Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign $120,000 and contributed $25,000 to Al Gore’s Florida recount war chest. She reportedly paid $450,000 to Bill Clintons’ presidential library fund and gave the Clintons a saxophone plus chairs and end tables worth $7,375. (The Duke and Duchess of Chappaqua reimbursed her for those gifts.) That’s $1,702,375 that Denise Rich reportedly gave the Clintons and their party. In addition, she hosted a $3 million Democratic fundraising luncheon at her Manhattan penthouse in 1998. “We’ll never forget it,” a grateful Bill Clinton remarked back then.
A January 10 e-mail to Marc Rich’s lawyer, Jack Quinn, showed that President Clinton phoned Beth Dozoretz, former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to say he “wants to do” the Rich pardon and “is doing all possible to turn around the [White House] counsels.” Once Clinton decided to pardon Rich, the March 5 issue of Time reports, Dozoretz heard the news at least an hour before Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams was informed. In yet another interesting twist, Bill Clinton’s attorney David Kendall admitted last week that Dozoretz pledged $1 million to the Clinton library.
Why did President Clinton give this matter so much attention, apparently to the point of wrestling with White House attorneys over this case? Perhaps he acted out of a sense of compassion for a misunderstood fugitive financier. Maybe a unique theory of justice guided Clinton, as if by an invisible hand. Or it could be that he simply was swapping a public favor for a private, seven-digit payoff.
It is highly suspicious that Kendall has blocked congressional investigators’ access to the Clinton library’s donor records. If those documents were exculpatory, Team Clinton surely would have released them to reporters as swiftly as they once handed out Kathleen Willey’s letters to Bill Clinton.
Donations to the Democratic party, the Clintons’ campaigns, the White House Historical Association and the Clinton library also are intertwined with clemencies granted to cocaine trafficker Carlos Vignali, cocaine distributor Charles Wilfred Morgan III, embezzler Arnold Paul Prosperi, and inside trader Edward Downe.
Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White also is investigating whether the Clintons traded commutations for votes. Bill Clinton cut the prison sentences of four Hasidic con men who used a phony yeshiva to fleece taxpayers out of $40 million in federal education and economic development grants. Last August, Mrs. Clinton campaigned in their hometown of New Square, a Hasidic enclave, and met privately with Grand Rabbi David Twersky, the local spiritual leader whose endorsement clinches near-unanimous support for the chosen politician. Indeed, New Square voted for Hillary Clinton over her GOP senatorial opponent Rick Lazio by a margin of 1,359 to 10. Lazio won similarly lopsided victories in two nearby Hasidic towns.
Last December 22, Twersky saw the Clintons in the White House Map Room to discuss clemency for the New Square Four. Mrs. Clinton recalls being there but now claims that she sat through the meeting in silence. “I did not play any role whatsoever,” she told the Associated Press. Nevertheless, within a month, the rabbi got his wish.
Beyond clemency, other donors won special favors. Guitarist Ry Cooder — widely appreciated for his Grammy-winning “Buena Vista Social Club” album with veteran Cuban musicians — was fined $25,000 in 1999 for recording in Cuba in violation of the U.S. trade embargo. Last September, Cooder donated $10,000 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Three days before President Clinton left office, and after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright intervened, Cooder won a federal permit to operate in Cuba.
As the New York Post editorial page noticed, Beth Dozoretz’s husband Ronald last year donated $14,000 to Democratic campaign committees. His wife contributed $30,000 to Democrats and $10,000 to the Clintons’ legal defense fund. The Dozoretzes also gave the Clintons a dining table, server and golf club worth roughly $7,000, for which they were reimbursed early this month. Mr. Dozoretz’s term on the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, meanwhile, was scheduled to expire next year. So, he resigned in January, whereupon Bill Clinton appointed him to a brand-new, six-year term at the prestigious Washington cultural landmark. “The move is unprecedented in the history of the Kennedy Center,” a source told the Washington Post
President Bush, not surprisingly, wants to walk as far away as possible from this open sewer. Sadly for him, his duties as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer deny him that luxury. He could do his job without sullying himself by looking into a TV camera and saying this: “Like most Americans, I hope that President Clinton’s controversial pardons were the product of questionable judgment rather than illegality. Nonetheless, the FBI and Justice Department should follow the evidence wherever it takes them. If my predecessor is exonerated, the news will reassure all Americans, including me. If not, the Bush-Cheney administration will enforce the relevant federal laws.”
Such a direct statement would contrast favorably with Bush’s “What, me worry?” shrugs. His casual posture quietly signals public officials from dogcatcher to the Defense Department that trading public favors for personal and political gain is really not such a big deal. Few messages could be more damaging to America’s civic culture.
If Bill Clinton used his pardon powers to reward donors and benefit himself and/or his wife, family or party, he deserves a freshly tailored orange jumpsuit. Clinton pardon recipient and former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D., Ill.) spent 15 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud in 1996. Specifically, he converted his office’s supply of postage stamps into cash which he used to purchase Lenox china and armchairs for friends and supporters.
Ex-Senator Harrison Williams (D., NJ) served almost two years in a federal prison after a 1981 conviction on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy in the ABSCAM influence-peddling scandal. That same year, Tennessee’s Democratic ex-governor, Ray Blanton, was found guilty of conspiracy and extortion for selling a friend a liquor license for $23,000. Blanton did 22 months in a federal penitentiary for his crimes.
What was good for these officials would be good for an ex-president. William Jefferson Clinton should be incarcerated if he indeed worked to devolve America into the United States of Nigeria.
This entire matter could not be more serious. The sooner President Bush recognizes this, the better. He might find the advice of the late Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater instructive. As the founder of the modern conservative movement once observed: “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”