WASHINGTON – "The final Clinton pardons were an accident waiting to happen," Margaret Colgate Love, who served as pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, told the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.
Traditionally, presidents let the Justice Department take the first look at clemency requests, but Clinton's White House took it upon itself to answer pardon inquiries, and made it known that Justice officials would be among many people who would advise Clinton on the requests, she said in written testimony.
"The Clinton administration's shortsighted and ill-advised decision to abandon the long-standing regular system of Justice Department review led directly to the reported free-for-all at the end of his term and the resultant appearance of cronyism and influence-peddling," Love asserted.
Also Wednesday, two members of the House Government Reform Committee began to review a list of 150 people who contributed more than $5,000 to Clinton's presidential library project. The Clinton foundation, which is raising money for the library in Little Rock, Ark., had resisted giving its donor list to the committee, but on Wednesday agreed to let the congressmen review it, while taking steps to protect the privacy of donors unrelated to the committee's investigation.
In an effort to convince Congress he has nothing to hide, Clinton said Tuesday that three of his closest ex-aides are free to testify to another House committee Thursday about the clemencies he granted in his last hours in the White House.
Clinton has waived his claim to executive privilege, which could have kept his former aides from telling lawmakers everything they know about the pardon of billionaire Marc Rich, who has lived in Switzerland since just before he was indicted in 1983 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and making illegal oil deals with Iran.
But while Clinton decided to let his aides testify freely, Rich declined to be a witness before the House Government Reform Committee, which is trying to determine whether money played a role in the presidential pardons of Rich and others.
Rich also refused to release his lawyers from attorney-client privilege. If he did, his lawyer said it could be later argued in criminal or civil proceedings that the privilege no longer exists. The Rich pardon is the subject of a criminal investigation by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White in New York City.
"Mr. Rich has asked me to inform the committee that he must continue to rely on the advice of his lawyers and, therefore, is unable to comply with the committee's requests at this time," his attorney, Laurence Urgenson, said in a letter to the committee.
The Washington Post, in Wednesday's editions, said a newly discovered e-mail suggests a Justice Department official told Rich's pardon attorney, Jack Quinn, to take his pardon request directly to the White House. According to the e-mail, Quinn told associates in November 2000 that Eric Holder, then-deputy attorney general, advised him to "go straight to" the White House to seek clemency for Rich. The message also said: "timing is good. we shd (should) get in soon."
Holder told the newspaper that he strongly disagreed with Quinn's e-mail message. He testified to Congress earlier this month that he wished he had asked more questions about the Rich case, and would have been opposed to it if he had obtained more information at the time.
While Clinton's decisions to issue pardons and commute the sentences of 176 Americans on Jan. 20 continued to make news in Washington, the former president was in New York telling an audience of media and entertainment executives, "I want to get out of the news."
Asked whether he was disturbed by reporters' attention to the pardons, Clinton remarked: "People always get it right over the long run, and the truth will prevail. So I'm not worried about that at all."
Clinton's personal attorney, David Kendall, said in a letter to the committee that the former president "will interpose no executive privilege objections to the testimony of his former staff concerning these pardons, or to other pardons and commutations he granted."
The committee will hear Thursday from John Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff; Beth Nolan, former White House counsel; and Bruce Lindsey, a longtime White House aide and confidant to the former president.
The committee wants to know whether Clinton's decision on Rich's pardon was influenced by contributions from Rich's ex-wife, Denise, to the library and various political campaigns. She has refused to testify before the panel, citing her constitutional privilege against self-incrimination.
Denise Rich, who visited the White House more than a dozen times during Clinton's presidency, contributed an estimated $450,000 to the foundation. She also contributed $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and at least $109,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid for the Senate.
Her friend, Beth Dozoretz, a former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee who pledged to raise $1 million for the library project, also has refused to be a committee witness.