WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former White House counsel Jack Quinn told a congressional hearing on Thursday that President Clinton's (news - web sites) controversial last-minute pardon of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich was merited by the facts and was not the product of improper influence.
Quinn, who represented Rich and shipped his pardon application directly to the White House in December, said he kept Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder informed of his actions and never discussed anything but the facts of the case with Clinton.
Critics have blasted Clinton for pardoning Rich in the last hours of his presidency and questioned if it was influenced by Quinn's role or by hundreds of thousands of dollars in Democratic campaign donations from Rich's ex-wife Denise.
``He made this judgement on the merits,'' Quinn said of Clinton, criticizing the prosecution case against Rich as a ''house of cards.''
At the first of what promises to be a series of hearings on Clinton's pardon of Rich, a beleaguered Quinn defended the pardon to the House Government Reform Committee and said he did nothing wrong or unethical in handling it.
In a letter from her attorney released on Thursday, Denise Rich refused to answer 14 written questions submitted to her by the committee, claiming her constitutional privilege against incriminating herself.
Committee Chairman Dan Burton of Indiana, one of Clinton's most vocal Republican critics, said Rich also gave ``an enormous sum of money'' to the former president's library fund, although it was unclear how much.
Burton said the committee would go to the Justice Department (news - web sites) to seek a grant of immunity for Rich in order to force her to testify.
Rich, who fled to exile in Switzerland 17 years ago, was given an irrevocable presidential pardon shortly before Clinton left office on Jan. 20, freeing one of the world's richest men from prosecution on more than 50 counts of racketeering, wire fraud, income tax evasion and illegal oil trading with Iran.
Committee Republicans, who conducted a contentious three-year probe of alleged campaign fund-raising abuses by Clinton, said Rich was an international fugitive who renounced his citizenship and illegally traded oil with not only Iran but also Iraq, Libya, Cuba and South Africa during anti-apartheid sanctions.
``On the surface, this doesn't look like a very good case for a pardon,'' Burton said. ``So the question we have is, how did this happen?''
Democrats did not defend the pardon, but ranking Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman (news - bio - voting record) of California questioned when the Republican pursuit of Clinton would stop. Waxman said he might not have granted a pardon in such circumstances, but ``there is a crucial distinction between bad judgement and a presidential scandal.''
``To date, I see plenty of bad judgement, but no evidence of criminal wrongdoing,'' Waxman said, adding the ``cottage industry'' of investigating Clinton scandals had to end.
Two of the federal attorneys who prosecuted Rich, Sandy Weinberg and Martin Auerbach, told the panel they felt ''outrage'' over the pardon and were convinced of Rich's guilt and his unworthiness for clemency.
``Whatever the reason for the pardon, surely the reason was not the merits of the case,'' Weinberg said. The conviction of Rich and his business partner for evading more than $48 million in taxes was the biggest tax fraud case in U.S. history.
But Quinn said the case was ``fundamentally flawed,'' based on a meritless tax charge and a misuse of federal racketeering statutes by a prosecution team headed in the early 1980s by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, now mayor of New York.
At a New York news conference, Giuliani said the case must have had some merit for Rich to ``run to Zurich, Switzerland, and spend $100 million to avoid extradition.'"
Quinn also denied allegations he made an end-run around standard pardon procedures by not submitting the application through the Justice Department's pardon officer, saying many pardons often originated at the White House and he kept Holder informed of his actions.
Holder said he paid little attention to the Rich case, but after White House counsel Beth Nolan told him on Jan. 19 that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (news - web sites) had sought a review of the issue and she asked his opinion, he told her he was ``neutral, but leaning toward if it had a foreign policy benefit.''
Nolan and former Clinton aide Bruce Lindsey were asked to testify but were out of town and did not appear. Both will be subpoenaed for a future hearing, a committee aide said.
Allegations have surfaced that Rich provided intelligence data to Israel and other countries, and Burton said without explanation that briefings from intelligence agencies indicated ''the pardon has been raised to another level.''
Under questioning from Burton, Holder said he asked Quinn for his support, probably last fall, in getting the attorney general's job in a possible Al Gore (news - web sites) administration. Holder denied a ``quid pro quo'' between the talk and the pardon.
``My actions in this matter were in no way affected by my desire to be attorney general,'' Holder said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also will launch hearings on the pardon next week. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (news - bio - voting record), who will head the probe, has suggested he might call Clinton to testify at future hearings.
Specter sent a letter to Senate colleagues urging support for a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to overturn presidential pardons on a two-thirds vote of each chamber.