Flap over pardons: deja vu for Congress and Clinton

Senate began hearings yesterday, despite hints from President Bush that they're an unwanted distraction.

Bill Clinton had wanted to spend his post-presidential years building his legacy and shaping the future of the Democratic Party.

Instead, he's weathering yet another congressional investigation that threatens both. The controversy deepened yesterday, as the Senate Judiciary Committee took a closer look at the procedures followed - or not - in a spate of 11th-hour pardons.

"Only weeks ago, the word was that the Clintons would dominate the Democratic Party leading up to 2002 and 2004. Now, Democrats are publicly saying what they only privately muttered - that Clinton is a liability to the Democratic Party," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

Ironically, until the last hours of his administration, President Clinton had issued fewer pardons than most other presidents. When asked about it in a January 1999 interview, he told the Monitor he hadn't been aware of that and would consider issuing more.

He did. On his last day in office, Mr. Clinton granted 140 full and unconditional pardons and 36 commutations. Those pardoned included convicted drug dealers and fugitive tax evaders - some associated with big donations to Democrats.

It's enough to put some GOP lawmakers back into the business of subpoenas, hearings, and immunity requests. Some Republicans are even talking about a constitutional amendment to curb the president's pardon authority; another has suggested that a second Clinton impeachment could be an option.

But the controversy is also a distraction that the new president would rather avoid. "It's time to move on," George W. Bush told reporters on Air Force One on the eve of yesterday's Senate hearings. House majority leader Dick Armey dismissed the impeachment suggestion as "unnecessary."

Crusading GOP congressmen say they just want to uncover the facts. House Republicans started with the most controversial pardon, billed in hearings last week as "The Controversial Pardon of International Fugitive Marc Rich."

Commodity traders Marc Rich and Pincus Green were indicted for tax evasion, racketeering, and violating the Iranian oil embargo in 1983, after which they fled the country. Denise Rich, Mr. Rich's former wife, has contributed $1 million to Democratic campaigns since her ex-husband's legal troubles, and "an enormous amount" to the Clinton presidential library, by her own account. When invited to testify before the House Government Reform Committee last week, she claimed constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

"There may be a good reason for the Rich pardon. Let's find out," says Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "Presidents should be willing to make their case in the court of history."

In Senate hearings yesterday, lawmakers questioned witnesses on why the Rich pardon was never sent to the pardon attorney or reviewed by the Justice Department. Some 47 of those pardons did not go through the normal process of review in the Justice Department.

"There is ... a need to have a full explanation of what has gone on, so if there are any improprieties they will never happen again," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.

So far, the Clinton pardons have rallied few defenders. Prominent Democrats such as Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California say they disapprove of the Rich pardon. But many also worry that Republicans could turn the issue into a broader partisan attack.

Democrats are especially concerned at the wide-ranging subpoenas issued this week by the House Committee on Government Reform. These include requests for records of all contributions over $5,000 to the Clinton presidential library, as well as phone and e-mail records of top Clinton aides and fundraisers in the Democratic National Committee related to pardons.

"These subpoenas are too broad to meet the test of a targeted investigation," says Philip Schiliro, Democratic staff director on the House Committee on Government Reform. "If it appears that this investigation is being done in a partisan way, that will create real problems," he adds.

At the same time, lawmakers in both parties say the investigations could improve the pardon process and fuel greater interest in campaign-finance reform.

"The kinds of money [contributed by Denise Rich] can't help but raise questions. This is a system that now provides at least an appearance of corruption," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, who is cosponsoring campaign-finance reform legislation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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