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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

As we've reported, Barack Obama is expected to name Eric Holder to be his attorney general. Holder was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, and the most contentious issue at his confirmation hearing will no doubt be his role in the hugely controversial pardon granted to the fugitive financier Marc Rich, that pardon granted by President Clinton on his last day in office. George Lardner, Jr., is working on a history of presidential pardon power. He covered the Marc Rich pardon for The Washington Post, and he says the issue deserves more scrutiny. George Lardner, thanks for coming in.

GEORGE LARDNER: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And let's go back and start with commodities trader Marc Rich and the charges dating back to 1983. What was Marc Rich charged with?

LARDNER: He was charged with 65 counts of defrauding the IRS, mail fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, trading with the enemy - that is to say Iran.

BLOCK: Was charged and then fled.

LARDNER: Well, he fled when he heard he was about to be charged, and got to Switzerland and stayed there for 17 years.

BLOCK: And one key here is that Marc Rich was married to a major Clinton donor, Denise Rich. And the question has been, did Mark Rich, in effect, buy his pardon?

LARDNER: Well, you'll get a lot of opinions on that. Nothing was ever proven. Denise Rich took the Fifth Amendment when the House Government Reform committee tried to question her. And so she's never said anything under oath or, to my knowledge, not much that wasn't under oath.

BLOCK: In 1999, Marc Rich hires a real Washington insider, Jack Quinn, the former White House counsel under Bill Clinton. What was Jack Quinn's role? What was he hired to do?

LARDNER: He was hired to see if he could get the Rich legal team a meeting with the prosecutors in New York and to perhaps persuade them to let Marc Rich come back into the country, strike a deal, but without any jail time at all.

BLOCK: And that didn't work?

LARDNER: No.

BLOCK: With that avenue gone to them, they haven't reached a deal with prosecutors. At some point they decide, we're going to ask for a presidential pardon?

LARDNER: Yes, that's a step I think they'd been considering for months, but they waited toward nearly the tail end of the Clinton administration to apply for it.

BLOCK: Ultimately, in January of 2001, Eric Holder gives his assessment of the pardon. He says he's neutral, leaning favorable. And it's the next day that Marc Rich is in fact pardoned by Bill Clinton.

LARDNER: That's correct.

BLOCK: There were congressional hearings on the Marc Rich pardon, some of them led by the Indiana Republican Dan Burton. And Eric Holder testified about this. What was his justification? How did he explain his recommendation on this pardon?

LARDNER: His general explanation, I think, was that he wasn't paying that much attention, that he was impressed at the last minute by learning that Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, had weighed in on Rich's behalf. In fact, he knew nothing about Barak's endorsement but what Quinn or maybe Beth Nolan, the White House counsel, told him.

BLOCK: So, what's your interpretation then of his role in this pardon?

LARDNER: Well, I don't think it would have been issued if he had done his job. He maintained secrecy for it from all others in the Justice Department, and he gave it a last minute boost when it needed a boost from Clinton's point of view.

BLOCK: There was a whole flurry of pardons at the very end of the Clinton administration. Is it not possible that Eric Holder was overwhelmed by the number before him and that this did maybe not get the attention that it deserved?

LARDNER: No, I don't think so. The pardon attorney, not Eric Holder, is the one that's supposed to review these cases. And there were an awful lot that the Justice Department never saw. Clinton was exasperated with the pardon process, how slow it was. And so people were being advised by the pardon attorney at the time, Roger Adams, go straight to the White House.

BLOCK: So you think his explanation doesn't hold water.

LARDNER: It's a bit thin, yes.

BLOCK: How much of an issue - how big an issue do you think this should be in Eric Holder's confirmation hearings?

LARDNER: I think it should be a major issue because it wasn't explored with Holder in as much detail as it should have been at the time. He testified at the start of the hearings. And then the House committee, its staff, was very professional, did a very thorough job of compiling documents and emails and things like that. They came out many months later with their report. And so far as I know, Holder has never been closely questioned about the documentation in that report.

BLOCK: George Lardner, thanks very much.

LARDNER JR: You're welcome.

BLOCK: George Lardner covered the Marc Rich pardon for The Washington Post. We asked Eric Holder for a response and were told Mr. Holder did not wish to comment. He did, however, have this to say in his testimony in 2001. "In hindsight, I wish I had done some things differently with regard to the Marc Rich matter. Specifically, I wish I had ensured that the Department of Justice was more fully informed and involved."

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