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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of Mr. Obama's nominations was for the post of attorney general. He selected Eric Holder, though everyone on the Obama transition team knew there was one big controversy in Holder's past.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

What the team may not have fully anticipated is the renewed scrutiny that that episode has received. NPR's Ari Shapiro takes us back to the end of the Clinton administration and Eric Holder's role in the pardon of a man named Marc Rich.

ARI SHAPIRO: Soon after Eric Holder became deputy attorney general, he sat down for an interview with an NPR reporter. He sounded a little wary of a job where people would scrutinize his decisions for decades.

(Soundbite of NPR interview, 1997)

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (United States Attorney General-Designate): We're human too. And to see things that are written about you that question your motives, question your integrity - I mean, that takes its toll.

SHAPIRO: When he spoke those words in 1997, no one was really questioning Holder's motives. He was a rising star. A few years later, he was defending his integrity before Congress and the country.

(Soundbite of House Government Reform Committee hearing)

Mr. HOLDER: As you can see from these facts, attempts to make the Justice Department or me the fall guys in this matter are rather transparent and simply not consistent with the facts.

SHAPIRO: That was Holder testifying before a House committee about the pardon of Marc Rich. Rich's ex-wife had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clintons. And when prosecutors charged Rich with millions in fraud and tax evasion, Rich fled to Switzerland. He hired a former White House counsel named Jack Quinn to represent him. Back at the Justice Department, Holder was in charge of overseeing pardons.

Quinn lobbied Holder to get a pardon for Rich, and eventually Holder told the president he was neutral, leaning towards favorable on the issue. Holder didn't check with his deputies first, and he didn't ask for input from the prosecutors who had charged Rich in the first place. The next day, President Clinton's last day in office, the president pardoned Marc Rich. It was a huge scandal. Republicans like Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio accused Holder of distorting justice for his own self-interest.

(Soundbite of Senate Judiciary Committee hearing)

Mr. HOLDER: I knew he was a fugitive...

Senator MIKE DEWINE (Republican, Ohio): You knew he was a fugitive, and still you said you didn't know that you'd have - would necessarily have any objection to that? Didn't the fact that he was a fugitive bother you?

Mr. HOLDER: Sure it did.

SHAPIRO: Up to that point, the Justice Department had a tradition against pardoning fugitives. Holder testified, "In hindsight, I wish I had done some things differently with regard to the Marc Rich matter." Specifically, he said, "I wish I had insured that the Department of Justice was more fully informed and involved." He said he was so overwhelmed by the flood of last minute pardon requests that he didn't give the Rich case the attention it deserved. That explanation didn't satisfy House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton of Indiana. Quinn, after all, had served both Clinton and Gore.

(Soundbite of House Government Reform Committee hearing)

Representative DAN BURTON (Republican, Indiana; Chairman, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee): You knew Mr. Quinn had great influence with the president and probably the vice president, and you knew that they could help you become attorney general.

Mr. HOLDER: My actions in this matter were in no way affected by my desire to become attorney general of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Burton led a congressional investigation into the last-minute Clinton pardons. And the report concluded that Holder, quote, "Deliberately cut the rest of the Justice Department out of the process to help Quinn obtain the pardon for Marc Rich." Democrats criticized that report as partisan. Today Holder's allies paint him as an innocent victim who was manipulated by Jack Quinn. Patrick Leahey of Vermont chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he's friends with Holder.

Senator PATRICK LEAHEY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): I don't think that President Clinton should have made the pardon, but I don't blame Eric Holder for that. He's not the one that recommended the pardon. He's not the one who did the pardon.

SHAPIRO: Republicans say they'll ask him about the pardon at Holder's confirmation hearing. Some have gone even further. Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas is on the House Judiciary Committee, and he said in a statement, "If a Republican official had engaged in this kind of activity, he would never receive a Senate confirmation."

The Obama transition team knew from the beginning that the Rich pardon could be a stumbling block. They consulted with Republicans in Congress before making the nomination, and Mr. Obama only announced Holder as his choice to be attorney general once he was satisfied that this would not be a serious threat to his confirmation. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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