Republicans Expected to Question Obama AG Nominee on Clinton-Era Pardons
January 14, 2009 - 6:56 PMIt was August 1995 when U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Eric Holder announced he would not prosecute a top Clinton White House aide, in response to a federal judge's recommendation about the Clinton health care task force. Holder then was reportedly under consideration for a federal judgeship, and two years later, he was named deputy attorney general.
It was in the number two spot at the Justice Department where controversy would follow, as Holder was at the center of two of President Bill Clinton’s most controversial clemencies.
In one case – the Marc Rich pardon – a congressional report alleges Holder was seeking the endorsement of Rich’s attorney “to be appointed as attorney general in a potential (Al) Gore administration.”
On Thursday when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the nomination of Holder to be the attorney general of the United States, Republicans on the committee are expected to question Holder on his role in still-controversial Clinton-era pardons. This may be Barack Obama’s most troublesome confirmation.
The aforementioned cases demonstrate that Holder placed political ambition ahead of the law, said Peter Flaherty, president of the National Legal Policy Center (NLPC), a government watchdog group that sued the Clinton health care task force for closing its meetings to the public.
“Holder has not been independent or objective in the past,” Flaherty told CNSNews.com. “If confirmed, I think he will be a very political attorney general. This is a really bad nomination. It sets the tone early in this administration that everything is going to be viewed through a political prism.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has been critical of Holder for his role in the Clinton Justice Department’s decision on pardons and the Clinton/Gore 1996 campaign finance scandal, but Specter said he will keep an open mind.
“There is a critical qualification of character in upholding principles when tempted to yield to expediency by being a yes man to release superiors or to accommodate a friend,” Specter said on the Senate floor last week. “Mr. Holder, while serving as DAG [deputy attorney general] some of his actions raised concerns about his ability to maintain his independence from the president.”
However, Holder appears to have wide support for confirmation from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), law enforcement groups, and two former Republican House members – Bob Barr and Asa Hutchinson – who were both managers of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate.
“Mr. Holder has served as an anti-corruption prosecutor, judge – appointed by President Reagan no less – U.S. Attorney and deputy attorney general,” Leahy said last week.
“Eric Holder has served at nearly every level of the Department of Justice and has earned the respect of law enforcement officers and organizations across the country. His nomination has garnered support from civil rights community, victims’ rights advocates and former Republican officials,” Leahy added.
Health care task force
Not long after President Clinton named his wife to head a task force to reform health care in January 1993, the NLPC brought suit against the task force alleging that it violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).
That law requires a federal commission, with non-government employees as members, to open its meetings to the public and the press.
Initially, the basis for the claim came because Hillary Clinton was not, at the time, a government employee, but a presidential spouse. The law’s intent is to protect against undue influence by private interest over government decision-making.
The Clinton Justice Department defended the task force, saying the FACA law did not apply to the first lady.
On March 3, 1993, Ira Magaziner, a management consultant who was named director of the task force, said in an affidavit that “only federal government employees served as members” of the task force.
A few days later, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the task force to open its meetings. The task force disbanded shortly thereafter, though the Clinton White House still presented a universal health care plan to Congress that fall.
Though the Clinton health care plan fizzled out in 1994, the legal issues surrounding the task force continued. Discovery in the suit showed that numerous private citizens affiliated with organizations that have a direct interest in the health care proposal were part of the task force.
These included individuals affiliated with such organizations as United Health Care, Kaiser Permanente and the National Capital Preferred Provider Organization.
So, on Dec. 21, 1994, Judge Lamberth described Magaziner’s affidavit as “misleading at best.” Lamberth asked U.S. Attorney Holder to launch a criminal investigation into Magaziner, and asked Attorney General Janet Reno to name a special prosecutor to determine if Magaziner lied under oath.
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 6, 1995 that the Clinton White House informed Holder – a former Washington, D.C. Superior judge – that he was under consideration for a federal judgeship. The story reported that he might be more acceptable to the new Republican majority in the Senate than other people being considered.
In March, Reno announced that she would not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Magaziner. In August, U.S. Attorney Holder said he would not prosecute Magaziner. He explained his decision in an 18-page letter to Lamberth.
“After an extensive and thorough review of this matter, we have concluded that there is no legal basis for prosecuting Mr. Magaziner for either perjury or contempt of court,” the Holder letter said. “Even if the statement in question could be proven true or false, there is no evidence to show that Mr. Magaziner believed the statements to be false at the time that he made them.”
After numerous attempts by the Justice Department to reach a plea agreement with fugitive financier Marc Rich, he hired Washington lawyer Jack Quinn “after a recommendation from Eric Holder,” according to a 2001 report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (then called just Government Reform Committee).
Rich had been indicted in New York on 51 counts, including tax evasion, fraud and trading with the enemy (Iran during the hostage crisis). The charges carried a maximum 300 years in prison, Specter said.
Marc Rich’s ex-wife Denise Rich had spent $100,000 toward the election of Hillary Clinton to the Senate in New York. She contributed $450,000 to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library Foundation and contributed $1.1 million to the Democratic Party.
Clinton issued the pardon on his last day in office. “President Clinton made his decision knowing almost nothing about the Rich case, making a number of mistaken assumptions and reaching false conclusions,” the House report said.
Holder became involved in the Rich matter in February 2000, the committee report says.
An e-mail from Holder to Quinn suggests he “go straight to the wh,” presumably White House. The committee report said Quinn and Holder “worked together to ensure that the Justice Department, especially the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York, did not have an opportunity to express an opinion on the Rich pardon before it was granted.”
Holder also told the White House he was “neutral, leaning toward favorable” on the Rich pardon.
In his 2001 testimony to the House committee, Holder said, “What I assumed was going to happen in late November of 2000 was that after the petition had been filed, that the White House would be reaching out to the Justice Department, and that we would have an opportunity at that point to share with them as we do in pardon – that we generally do in pardon request, after all of the vetting had been done, the opinion of the Justice Department.”
Quinn told the committee, regarding sending the pardon request directly to the White House, “I didn’t make that decision in an effort to hide the pardon petition from anybody. I encouraged the White House to reach out to the Justice Department and see their views.”
The committee report alleges that Holder was favorably inclined to Quinn, perhaps for how he thought Quinn could help his career.
“On several occasions Holder sought Quinn’s endorsement to be appointed as attorney general if Al Gore were to win the November 2000 election,” the report said.
“Quinn was a Gore confidant whose endorsement would carry great weight. Holder’s initial help to Quinn in the Rich matter predated the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, and accordingly, Holder had some legitimate prospect of being appointed attorney general when he was helping Quinn keep the Rich matter from the Justice Department’s scrutiny,” it said.
The committee’s own assessment said, “The final question then is whether Holder’s failure to obtain the Rich petition and involve the Justice Department in the pardon process was a result of incompetence, or a deliberate decision to assist Jack Quinn.”
Holder said he may have used poor judgment but denied that his desire to be attorney general had anything to do with his involvement in the Rich matter.
“My actions in this matter were in no way affected by my desire to become Attorney General of the United States, any desires I had to influence or seek to curry favor with anybody,” Holder told the committee in 2001.
“I did what I did in this case based only on the facts that were before me, the law as I understood it and consistent with my duties as deputy attorney general. Nothing more than that,” he added.
The committee’s assessment continues, “Regardless of Holder’s motivations, his actions were unconscionable. One of Holder’s primary duties in the pardon process was to make sure that the views of the Justice Department were to be adequately represented in the pardon process.”
The report said that “while all of the White House staff was opposing” the Rich pardon, “Holder provided critical support for it at the eleventh hour.”
On Jan. 19, one day before the pardon, Holder told Quinn in a telephone conversation that he has “no personal problem” with the Rich problem but predicted federal prosecutors in New York would “howl.”
In his final hours in office, Clinton issued more than 100 pardons and commutations – most notably the Rich pardon – before the George W. Bush presidential inauguration.
With no hope of becoming Gore’s attorney general, the committee report said that Holder “continued to seek Quinn’s support for finding employment for his underlings” and on Jan. 22 congratulated Quinn on the pardon. Holder denied that he ever congratulated Quinn.
In an exchange with Barr during the House committee hearing in 2001, Holder said, “I was neutral leaning toward. Neutral, meaning consistent with what I said before, which was I don’t have a basis to be one way or the other.”
Barr asked, “Is that your presumption as the second top official at Justice, that if somebody comes in and asks you about a pardon that you don’t know anything about, that your position is immediately neutral and therefore their job is to move you toward favorable? I mean, wouldn’t your position as a prosecutor be to stand by your prosecutors and your initial position when you don’t know about a case is to oppose it?”
Holder answered, “No. Without a basis to know whether – how the decision should go, I think it would be incumbent upon--”
Barr, a former U.S. attorney, interrupted the answer expressing his belief that he should have faith in federal prosecutors.
But in a letter last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr wrote, “Mr. Holder and I may have had disagreements over policy matters during the time he served in the administration of President Clinton. However, I never had reason to question his personal and professional integrity or his deep understanding of and commitment to our Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.”
Law enforcement backing
Law enforcement groups such as the National District Attorneys Association, National Sheriff’s Association and National Troopers Coalition have all endorsed the Holder nomination.
The Fraternal Order of Police reviewed Holder’s record as a judge and federal prosecutor.
“Our review concluded that his positions and actions were consistent with the goals and objectives of the Fraternal Order of Police,” wrote Chuck Canterbury, the national FOP president, in an endorsement letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We were privileged to have the opportunity to discuss personally with Mr. Holder a number of different issues, including his vision for the Department of Justice in the new administration,” Canterbury added.
However, it’s Holder’s record that gives the Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA), a coalition of state and federal law enforcement officers and advocates, the most concern.
“With such an important selection, president-elect Obama could have picked someone who is pro-police, pro-self defense and pro-Second Amendment record,” Ted Deeds, chief operating officer of the LEAA, told CNSNews.com.
“He was part of the Reno Justice Department that supported a federal takeover of local police departments. And his involvement with FALN terrorists is not so much political as a significant sign of disregard for law enforcement,” Deeds said.
The House Government Reform Committee also issued a report in December 1999 regarding Holder’s sway in another controversial pardon some think was politically motivated regarding Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in New York. (See Previous Story)
President Clinton pardoned 16 Marxist Puerto Rican terrorists belonging to the group Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN. They were convicted for their involvement in a robbery and terror campaign.
The FBI and federal prosecutors opposed the pardons, as did the Justice Department’s Office of Pardon Attorney. Further, the convicted terrorists had not asked for a pardon or apologized for their crimes.
Holder met with Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Joes Serrano and Nydia Velazquez, all New York Democrats, about the clemency petitions, once in November 1997 and again in April 1998.
Holder’s report to President Clinton did not take a clear position on whether to grant clemency, a departure from the department’s previous position against the pardons. The committee’s report said, “By refraining from giving a clear recommendation, it is almost as if the Justice Department is doing the best it can to bolster a decision that had already been made.”
Holder testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the FALN pardon in October 1999, “but he refused to answer a number of questions citing executive privilege,” Specter complained.
“During the hearing, the Judiciary Committee also learned that victims and groups opposing clemency were not consulted prior to the grant of clemency,” Specter said. “A number of senators articulated their concern over the lack of consultation.”