Clinton's pardon of rich fugitive doesn't sit well with Congress

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WASHINGTON - Prominent Republican and Democratic lawmakers are sharply criticizing the last-minute pardon President Clinton granted to fugitive businessman Marc Rich, with one House leader broaching the prospect of a congressional inquiry.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and a longtime Clinton foe, announced yesterday that he is seeking documents connected with the pardon.

Rich, a billionaire commodities trader, was indicted in 1983 on charges of tax fraud and illegal oil trading with Iran. He fled the United States and was never brought to trial. Clinton's pardon frees him from the threat of prosecution in this country.

The pardon of Rich, 67, and a former business associate, Pincus Green, were among 140 granted by Clinton just hours before his term expired Saturday.

Rich's pardon has attracted attention, in part, because it did not go through the normal Justice Department screening. Formal White House counsel Jack Quinn lobbied Clinton directly on behalf of Rich, whose ex-wife is a major Democratic Party contributor.

"Until his pardon was granted, Marc Rich was on the list of the Justice Department's six-most-wanted international fugitives," Burton said in a statement. "Since former President Clinton has not given an adequate explanation as to why Mr. Rich deserved a pardon, Congress has an obligation to find out if this pardon was appropriate."

While criticism from such GOP stalwarts as Burton was expected, the flak from Democrats has been notable.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has said he disagrees with the Rich pardon. "I think it was inappropriate," Daschle said. "But I don't know all the facts, and I can't pass final judgment on it."

Daschle added that as a result of the episode, he would be open to a review of the procedures for presidential pardons.

The critics have focused on $867,000 worth of political contributions made by Rich's former wife, Denise Rich, to Democratic causes in recent years, as well as the lobbying by Quinn. Marc Rich has given more than $200 million to charities, including many connected to Israel.

Burton acknowledged the pardon cannot be revoked, but said he hoped several questions could be answered, including: ** Whether Clinton had an "improper motive."

** Whether law-enforcement authorities were consulted.

** Whether any regulations on the lobbying of the president were violated.

Defenders of Rich said the case against him was unfairly hyped by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, now mayor of New York. They denied government charges that Rich evaded about $48 million in income taxes, and they pointed out that his company had agreed to pay the government $150 million in fines before Rich fled to Switzerland.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has seized on the furor to drum up support for his legislation to reform campaign-finance laws.