Pardon Is Back in Focus for the Justice Nominee

WASHINGTON — In the much praised career of Eric H. Holder Jr., President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to be attorney general, there is one notable blemish: Mr. Holder’s complicated role in the 2001 pardon of Marc Rich, a billionaire financier who had fled the country rather than face federal tax evasion charges.

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President Clinton with Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and Attorney General Janet Reno at the White House in Washington in 1999.

Mr. Holder’s supporters portray him as having been a relatively uninvolved bystander caught in a Clinton-era controversy, the remarkable granting of a last-minute pardon by President Bill Clinton to a fugitive from justice. But interviews and an examination of Congressional records show that Mr. Holder, who at the time of the pardon was the deputy attorney general, was more deeply involved in the Rich pardon than his supporters acknowledge.

Mr. Holder had more than a half-dozen contacts with Mr. Rich’s lawyers over 15 months, including phone calls, e-mail and memorandums that helped keep alive Mr. Rich’s prospects for a legal resolution to his case. And Mr. Holder’s final opinion on the matter — a recommendation to the White House on the eve of the pardon that he was “neutral, leaning toward” favorable — helped ensure that Mr. Clinton signed the pardon despite objections from other senior staff members, participants said.

At the same time, Mr. Holder was not the sinister deal maker that his critics made him out to be. He let himself be drawn into the case by politically influential advocates, the review of the case shows, bypassing the usual Justice Department channels for reviewing pardon applications and infuriating prosecutors in New York who had brought the initial charges against Mr. Rich and his business partner.

Most perplexing to Justice Department allies was that Mr. Holder, by his own admission, involved himself in the discussions without a full briefing from his own prosecutors about the facts of the case, according to an associate of Mr. Holder who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Reid Weingarten, a lawyer for Mr. Holder, said that Mr. Holder had done nothing improper in his handling of the Rich matter and that conversations about it were routine and largely insignificant, in part because he assumed that Mr. Rich’s lawyer, Jack Quinn, was going through normal pardon channels.

“Mr. Holder assumed that this was all being handled in the normal course,” Mr. Weingarten said, adding, “There’s no question that Quinn played him and it was astute by Quinn because he did catch Eric unawares.”

By all accounts, Mr. Holder’s role in the affair represents the biggest misstep of his career, and Mr. Obama’s aides focused on the issue before Mr. Holder was selected. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were consulted to gauge whether the pardon would prove an insurmountable hurdle.

Some Republicans in Congress are eager to revisit the Rich pardon, which was investigated at length in 2001 both by Congress and by a grand jury amid a public clamor that was fueled by hefty donations that Mr. Rich’s former wife had made to Mr. Clinton’s presidential library and to Democratic causes. Critics of the pardon also seized on reports from American intelligence officials that Mr. Rich’s oil-and-commodities company had done business with Iran, Iraq and other so-called rogue states.

“Marc Rich was a fugitive for nearly two decades, wanted by the federal government for fraud and tax evasion,” Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday after the nomination was announced. Referring to Mr. Holder’s actions, Mr. Smith added, “If a Republican official had engaged in this kind of activity, he would never receive Senate confirmation.”

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Holder’s role in the Rich pardon would be “a big question” at his Senate confirmation hearing.

A longtime prosecutor and a former judge, Mr. Holder remains a popular figure at the Justice Department eight years after he left, and his supporters insist he was made the “fall guy” for a controversy mainly of Mr. Clinton’s making.

Both Republican and Democratic admirers say Mr. Holder’s handling of the Rich affair, which he has acknowledged was flawed, should be balanced against the bulk of his law enforcement career.

“There’s no way you can have a high-profile job in Washington like the deputy attorney general without attracting some kind of controversy,” Larry Thompson, who succeeded Mr. Holder in that post in the Bush administration, said before Monday’s announcement. “That matter has been fully investigated, and it should be put behind him.”

More Articles in US »A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2008, on page A1 of the New York edition.