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By PHILIP GAILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
Elvis has left the building, but the show goes on -- embarrassing headlines, congressional hearings, sordid revelations, Jay Leno jokes. That's Bill Clinton, in office or out.
The Clintons, Lord help us, are the leeches who won't let go. They left the White House the same way they arrived -- with a whiff of scandal. As they went out the door, they carted off $190,000 in gifts, including furniture and rugs (the Bushes would be wise to count the silverware), only to have to return part of the loot after it turned out that it was donated to the White House, not to them personally. I guess they have lived in public housing too long. Hillary is now the junior U.S. senator from New York, with two houses to furnish in a style befitting the former first couple, one in Chappaqau, N.Y., the other in Washington. No one expected them to take up residence in a double-wide in Arkansas, but neither did we expect them to carry their sense of entitlement this far.
Perhaps we shouldn't make too much out of the Clintons' tacky heist. The real exit scandal is some of the 140 pardons that Bill Clinton handed out on his last day in office. A third of them -- 47 -- bypassed normal Justice Department review as former Clinton aides and campaign contributors took their cases directly to the president. It was enough to make even Democrats gag.
Marc Rich, the shadowy billionaire fugitive pardoned by Clinton, employed the services of Jack Quinn, a former Clinton White House counsel. With the stroke of the presidential pen, Rich went from being on the FBI's Most Wanted List to the top of the president's pardon list. We don't know how much Rich paid Quinn, but whatever it was, he got his money's worth. Rich fled to Switzerland 17 years ago and renounced his U.S. citizenship in an attempt to avoid being brought to trial on charges of tax fraud, a scheme that prosecutors contend cost U.S. taxpayers $50-million. He also was under investigation at the time for trading illegally with Iran while Americans were being held hostage.
This is believed to be the first time a president has granted a pardon to a fugitive from justice. Usually, a presidential pardon is reserved for those who are tried, convicted and have served at least part of their sentence. But Rich was no ordinary clemency seeker. His former wife, Denise Rich, was a hefty contributor to Clinton's Democratic Party (more than $1-million) and to Hillary Clinton's senate campaign. At Thursday's congressional hearings on the pardon, Denise Rich, who personally pleaded her ex-husband's case to Clinton, took the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. But in response to written questions, one of her lawyers disclosed that she had given "an enormous sum" of money to the Clinton presidential library in Arkansas. Clinton, of course, insists that he decided this case on the merits, and that political contributions had nothing to do with it.
If Rich were an isolated case of Clinton's abuse of his pardon power, the former president's denials might have more credibility. But there were others. For example, Hillary Clinton sat in on a White House meeting with the president and four New York Orthodox Jews of the Skver sect who sought and won a pardon for the crime of bilking the government out of $40-million in education aid, housing subsidies and small-business loans. The first lady had visited these swindlers during her senate campaign in a successful attempt to win the support of this sect that usually swings Republican in elections. Hillary swears that she was nothing more than a potted plant at the meeting. No quid pro quo here.
And then there's the pardon of Glenn Braswell, a Miami multimillionaire convicted of fraud, perjury and tax evasion in 1983. Braswell's attorney -- Miami lawyer Kendall Coffey, who was one of Al Gore's lawyers during the Florida vote recount -- also bypassed the Justice Department and took his case directly to the president. Clinton now claims he granted the pardon not knowing Braswell is the subject of a continuing federal investigation of allegations of tax evasion and money laundering. That's because Clinton didn't bother to run the case by his own Justice Department. Presidents simply don't do pardons for people who are under active investigation, but, of course, Bill Clinton doesn't always play by the rules.
No wonder Democrats are angry. For a while toward the end, it looked like Clinton might leave office at the top of his game -- and the polls. As he approached the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton had higher approval ratings than Ronald Reagan, and even many of his critics were grudgingly tipping their hats to his political skills. Some Democrats are still convinced Al Gore would be president today if he had not barred Clinton from actively campaigning for him. At the time, Clinton fatigue seemed to be giving way to Clinton nostalgia. He was a bad boy, but he wasn't a bad president. During his eight years, the country fared better than the presidency.
Clinton spent his final days in office negotiating a plea bargain with independent counsel Robert Ray, Kenneth Starr's successor. He agreed to acknowledge that he had lied to a federal grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in return for Ray not seeking an indictment for perjury. He also agreed to have his law license suspended for five years. Many Americans shared his relief in finally putting his legal problems behind him. But Clinton owed a lot of people -- for their campaign contributions and their support during his impeachment. Some of them apparently decided to cash in their chits. The Comeback Kid picked up his pen and started signing pardons that added yet another stain to his legacy.
Perhaps we were naive to think the Clintons' departure from the White House would be clean and odorless. Even on their way out, they behaved badly. Bill Clinton's abuse of his pardon power is simply unpardonable.