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Special Event

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearings on Marc Rich Pardon

Aired February 14, 2001 - 10:39 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to take you back live now to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Currently speaking: Mike DeWine of Ohio.

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: ... constitutional power to grant pardons in the closing day of his administration with an eye toward making recommendations about the process by which the Justice Department reviews requests that the president exercise his power.

We might also consider proposals for a constitutional amendment to limit the president's power in some way, and I, frankly, don't think that a hearing done in the heat of public and press attention to a particular controversial pardon granted by a single president in the last days of his office is really the best way to give a proposed constitutional amendment the full scrutiny it deserves, but that certainly is a legitimate purpose for a Senate hearing.

I do believe, however, that holding a hearing simply to add the public outcry over certain pardons or to launch attacks against the president or people in his administration is an appropriate use of our oversight authority.

And so, I'm a little disappointed at the title of this hearing, "President Clinton's 11th Hour Pardons." That sounds like a hearing designed for public relations effect, not for a balanced and forward- looking inquiry about an important constitutional power of our nation's chief executive. And I do want to recognize that the chairman said, both as I heard on the Today Show and at the beginning of the hearing, that his purpose here is to look to the future, and I do appreciate that.

I have concerns about certain of the pardons myself, as I will discuss in a moment, but we do not have the power in this body to undo President Clinton's pardons subject to any of the points that the chairman was making about technical legal issues, and so I hope that this hearing is more than just an opportunity for senators to criticize our last president. I do not think the hearing is presented for that purpose -- and, again, I hope and assume this will not be such a hearing -- are consistent with the spirit of cooperation and bipartisan that we should be trying to create in this new evenly divided Senate.

Now, another purpose of this hearing might be to look at those most recent pardons and see if any lessons can be drawn concerning our criminal laws in this country. While they haven't received the attention of the Rich pardon in the media, 20 of the so-called 11th hour pardons involved people who received harsh, mandatory minimum prison sentences for minor nonviolent participation in drug trafficking conspiracies. Mandatory minimum sentences impose irreversible, tragic consequences on many people in this country, particularly young people and their families. So I hope this committee will examine that issue at some point this year and perhaps learn from the people who were involved in these cases about the human dimension of mandatory minimum sentences and whether they are actually succeeding in accomplishing what their proponents predicted and hope to accomplish.

As I look at my friend Mr. Holder, who I think did a superb job in his position, I'm reminded of the role of the pardon in the clemency power vis-a-vis the awesome power of the federal government to execute people and the role that might play, if there are questions of racial disparities, as have been suggested, if there are questions, perhaps, of innocence, if there are questions, perhaps, of inadequate legal representation. The notion of a constitutional amendment would allow the Congress to override by a super-majority the judgment of a president that somebody's life should be spared certainly gives me pause.

So, Mr. Chairman, while I'm not entirely comfortable with the potential tone of the hearing, I do believe that legitimate questions have been raised about the pardon of Marc Rich, in particular, and for me, as for many senators and many Americans, suspicions about this pardon arise from the fact that Marc Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, was a larger donor to the Democratic Party. Not just a large donor, a huge donor. According to press reports based on the research of the Center for Responsive Politics, Ms. Rich donated $867,000 to Democratic Party committees during the Clinton presidency and most of that was, of course, soft money. She also donated $66,300 to individual Democratic candidates in hard money. She also contributed $450,000 to President Clinton's Presidential Library fund. These kinds of numbers can't help but raise some questions about this pardon.

But let me also say that they put a question squarely to the members of this committee and the Senate as a whole: Will you do what it takes to end this corrupt soft-money system that allows contributions of this size to the political parties? This is a system that is now providing at least an appearance of corruption, and not only at our legislative process, not only at our political conventions, but now in the very heart of our criminal justice system.

There are members of this committee who have consistently filibustered our attempts to ban soft money. I'm happy to note that Senator Specter has consistently supported reform. But for other senators who have blocked reform, let me point out that filibusters in 1994 and 1996, 1997, and particularly in 1998 and 1999, when the House had passed a campaign finance reform bill and prevented us from changing the law, basically allowed it to be possible for Denise Rich to make these very large contributions and to raise at least the appearance of impropriety with regard to something as sacred as the pardon power. And remember, these same questions are going to be raised, and raised legitimately, about anyone that President Bush pardons during his term, if friends, family or associates of the persons pardon turned out to be contributors to the Bush campaign or to the Republican Party.

So while there may be nothing that we can do about the Clinton 11th hour pardons, there is something that we very clearly can do as a Congress to address the suspicions that some pardons have been or will be based on improper influence, and that of course is to pass campaign finance reform when it comes to the floor of the Senate next month.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you, Senator Feingold.

Senator Kyl?

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Just a couple of comments.

First of all, the president obviously had his reasons for granting these and other pardons. We're not going to know what those reasons are unless the president himself tells us.

The only other way that we could learn is if there is a criminal investigation based upon the information that has come to public light so far, information which does indeed raise serious questions about the possibility of improper influence.

But I think that our hearing today needs to focus on two other potential actions.

One is a constitutional amendment, which I find no justification for and frankly don't see the need for, simply because there may have been one abuse of discretion in this case.

There is, however, a secondary, and that has to do with statutory reform of the procedures within the Justice Department, which are currently regulated by internal Justice Department regulations which are on the public record.

I find that, based upon Mr. Holder's testimony, that he did not acquit himself or the Justice Department well in this case. According to his written testimony, he knew that the regular procedures had not been followed. He knew why it was important that those procedures be followed. As the number two person in the Department of Justice, he had a responsibility to see that procedures that were important were followed.

And in my view, and I'll be anxious to hear from Mr. Holder here, there is nothing that justified his inaction in this case. He was asked by Mr. Quinn, according to his testimony, what his position would be on the pardon of Mr. Rich -- this the day before the Clinton administration ended -- and according to Mr. Holder's testimony: "I told him that although I had no strong opposition, based on his recitation of the facts, law enforcement in New York would strongly oppose it."

So he had a sense that this would be a very controversial pardon. He understood at that time that technically Mr. Rich was not eligible for a pardon under the regulations of the Department of Justice, and he also had to know that the procedures -- that the failure to follow the procedures were a deliberate attempt to avoid those procedures because of the likelihood that a pardon would not be recommended if the procedures were properly followed.

My view is that Mr. Holder should have said to Mr. Quinn at that moment, "You haven't followed the procedures. You need to follow the procedures. You know what they are, Mr. Quinn. You need to file with the pardon attorney. And I'm going to call the president and warn him against taking action in this case, because we haven't vetted this request, as is the normal case and that there are dangers in moving ahead with this pardon in the absence of such vetting." That would have been the proper course of action, and I can find nothing that would have excused Mr. Holder from following that course of action.

So my suggestion here is that we also focus on the possibility of legislating a set of procedures, which the personnel of the Department of Justice would have to follow in the event they became aware of a potential pardon, procedures that would ensure that the pardon request is handled in the proper way. That way, at least we could avoid the kind of problem that occurred here, unless a president was blatantly willing to proceed against the recommendation of his own Department of Justice.

I'll be anxious to get the witnesses' views on whether such changes in procedure would be a good idea, at least to resolve these kinds of issues in the future.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SPECTER: Thank you, Senator Kyl.

Senator Durbin?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you very much, Senator Specter.

I will not defend the pardon of Marc Rich. Marc Rich is hardly a sympathetic figure. Charged with a serious violation of law, Mr. Rich chose to flee the United States and renounce his American citizenship. The circumstances surrounding his pardon involving campaign contributions certainly raise the appearance of impropriety, if not much more.

But it is curious to me that the issue of the presidential power to pardon is being considered today by this committee with the assumption that this action by former President Clinton was the only controversial pardon in recent memory. Senator Specter has even suggested that former President Clinton be called before this committee. Well, in the interest of balance, fairness, and in the spirit of bipartisanship, should this committee also call former President George Bush to explain why on Christmas Eve 1992 he issued a pardon for former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and five others, who had been convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra controversy? It's unlikely that former President Bush will be called or his actions even scrutinized by this committee.

It appears that in our investigation of the presidential right to pardon, in looking forward, as Senator Specter suggests, we can only reflect on one former president at a time. But if we're sincere about amending the Constitution or reforming the laws relating to pardons, the committee should not confine its inquiry to one action by one president.

If this hearing is about genuine reform, it should be opened and balanced. It should consider the use of the presidential pardon historically by presidents of both political parties. If it is about a parting shot at former President Clinton, then I have to agree with President George W. Bush, "It's time to move on."

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SPECTER: Thank you, Senator Durbin.

Senator Sessions?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The power to pardon is a legitimate power. It's one that ought to be exercised with great care. I believe in the role of the pardon attorney.

We had hearings here earlier on the Puerto Rican terrorist pardons , which I thought was breathtakingly inexcusable by the president. And I believe I suggested to Mr. Adams that I didn't see how he could remain in office as a pardon attorney, turning down on a daily basis people who committed very minor crimes, who lived a life of success and contributed to their community, they not get a pardon, and we pardon people who are convicted of violent crimes and major crimes...

KAGAN: We're going to dip in here a little bit to the Senate Judiciary Committee and to their hearings and bring in our Bob Franken to get a little perspective here.

Bob, one of the points being brought up by I think by Senator Kyl was the role of Department of Justice, who, in at least during the House hearings, the House government reform hearings, Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general at the time didn't come out looking great in this matter as well.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Holder's going to be saying the same thing today that he said last week, which is that he was not really in the loop that much on this matter. And of course, the Republicans are saying, well, he should have been, it should have been the normal, very detailed Department of Justice procedure. Of course, others have pointed out that the president has the right to go that route or to do as he did in some of these cases and make the decision individually.

Another point here: I've noticed now that several of the Democratic members on this committee are really picking up a theme that is reverberated throughout Democratic circles in particular, and that basically is enough is enough. The Democrats are trying to perhaps tap into a feeling that Bill Clinton has been knocked around enough, the Republicans have made their point, and that it's time to perhaps move forward.

So you keep hearing that: You heard it from Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, you heard it earlier from Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who managed to turn all this, by the way, into a discussion about his campaign finance reform that he's cosponsoring with John McCain.

So you're getting an awful lot of politics here, and it begins to look like this pardons issue is going to get enmeshed in partisan politics.

KAGAN: Well, and Bob, what exactly is the point of these hearings? Is it just to bash Clinton, to talk about what went wrong, or are some of these senators actually considering doing something like changing the presidential right to pardon whoever he or, perhaps in the future, she pleases?

FRANKEN: Well, Senator Specter is suggesting a constitutional amendment which would give Congress 180 days after a presidential pardon by a two-thirds vote the ability to overturn that. Now, of course, the Constitution is very, very difficult to amend. As a matter of fact, he calls it the Mondale amendment, because in the 93rd Congress, many, many moons ago, Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota made that proposal -- and Senator Specter is making it again.

As you know, Senator Specter is somebody who likes to put out ideas out there and just see how they reverberate. He is also the one who has put out the possibility that because of the procedure that is used in the Marc Rich pardon that it's not valid -- just about everybody shot that down by the way.

KAGAN: The ideas and the discussion continue. Bob Franken, thank you very much.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing will continue as well.

Also at the top of the hour, we are waiting the start of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They are looking at the issue of what went wrong on network news services on election night, on November 7th. We will be bringing you those hearings as well.

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