Fugitive financier pardoned by Clinton

June 26, 2013

Marc Rich, a fugitive financier who made deals with shady international regimes and was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list before his controversial presidential pardon on Bill Clinton’s final day in office in 2001, died June 26 at a hospital in Lucerne, Switzerland. He was 78.

He had a stroke, his company, the Marc Rich Group, said in a statement.

Mr. Rich was a commodities trader who made a billion-dollar fortune by doing business with Iran, Iraq, Romania, Russia, Libya and other countries sometimes at odds with the United States.

Called the “King of Commodities,” Mr. Rich dealt in almost anything that could be mined, harvested or drilled from the surface of the earth, including oil, minerals, precious metals, timber and grain. At various times, he was reported to have virtual control over the international markets for aluminum, silver, tin and mercury.

In the early 1980s, he owned half of the 20th Century Fox studio in Hollywood before selling his share to Rupert Murdoch for $250 million. Forbes magazine named him one of the 400 richest Americans and estimated his personal fortune at $2.5 billion.


Marc Rich, who died June 26 at 78, made a billion-dollar fortune by doing business with Iran, Iraq, Romania, Russia, Libya and other countries sometimes at odds with the United States. (MARK RICH GROUP/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Mr. Rich defied oil embargoes, price controls and other niceties of law to buy oil from Iran and Iraq and resell it to apartheid-era South Africa and other outlaw nations. Although notoriously shy of publicity, the multilingual Mr. Rich was said to have had personal dealings with many infamous dictators, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

His companies did business with Francisco Franco’s Spain, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya and, most notoriously, Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the United States had a strict trade embargo against Iran — and when 52 Americans were held hostage in Tehran — Mr. Rich was negotiating deals to buy crude oil from the ayatollah’s government.

He was credited with developing the “spot market” business practice, or a short-term purchase that could be quickly resold for big profits. Concealing those profits led to Mr. Rich’s indictment in 1983 by federal prosecutors in New York, under the direction of then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mr. Rich and his business partner, Pincus “Pinky” Green, were charged with evading $48 million in U.S. income taxes and hiding more than $100 million in profits. The indictment enumerated more than 50 counts of tax evasion, racketeering, conspiracy and fraud. It was the largest tax evasion case in history at the time, and Mr. Rich could have been sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.

One of the most damning charges against Mr. Rich — trading with the enemy, for his dealings with Iran — was later dropped.

Prosecutors turned down an offer to drop charges in return for a payment of $100 million. Several of Mr. Rich’s corporate interests ended up paying more than $200 million in fines and penalties, and some lower-level business collaborators went to jail.

But the man himself could not be found. Before he could be arrested, Mr. Rich cleaned out his expansive Fifth Avenue apartment in New York and moved to Zug, Switzerland. (Green, his business partner, also fled the United States and is living in Switzerland.)

Mr. Rich said he renounced his U.S. citizenship — a claim the U.S. government disputed — and was a citizen of Belgium, Israel and Spain, where he had a palatial seaside estate.

Keeping up with Mr. Rich was like playing a multinational shell game. As part of his wheeling and dealing, he frequently bought, sold and renamed his businesses and opened off-shore companies around the world.

Mr. Rich said his “most important and most profitable business” was selling oil to South Africa for about 15 years during an international oil embargo of the pro-apartheid regime.

“We were all against apartheid,” he told Swiss writer Daniel Ammann for the 2009 book “The King of Oil.” “The South Africans needed oil, and people were reluctant to sell it to them because of the embargo. We agreed to do it because we felt it was nothing illegal.”

For years, Mr. Rich was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, alongside Osama bin Laden. He was almost captured several times, including once while trying to board a plane in London in 1986. Five years later, Mr. Rich’s private jet turned around in midair en route to Finland, where U.S. agents were waiting to arrest him.

Mr. Rich’s connections extended beyond business to include the higher reaches of government, law and intelligence. His Washington-based attorneys included Edward Bennett Williams, onetime Nixon aide Leonard Garment and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

A former head of Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 2001 that Mr. Rich had furnished office space and financing for Mossad’s international operations.

A personal plea from then-
Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was said to have helped persuade Clinton to pardon Mr. Rich. Clinton said he was following the advice of legal advisers and suggestions from, among others, the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., then a deputy attorney general, also recommended the pardon.

Soon after the pardon was granted on Jan. 20, 2001, Clinton drew intense criticism when it was revealed that Mr. Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, a Manhattan socialite and songwriter, had given more than $1 million to Democratic causes, including $450,000 to a foundation for Clinton’s library and museum.

A subsequent federal investigation found no evidence that Mr. Rich had purchased his pardon through his former wife’s political contributions.

Holder, among others, had a change of heart.

“Knowing everything that I know now,” he told the House Government Reform Committee, “I would not have recommended to the president that he grant the pardon.”

Mr. Rich remained in Europe for the rest of his life and was not known to have returned to the United States.

Marc David Reich was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on Dec. 18, 1934. His Jewish family fled Europe before World War II and came to the United States. Mr. Rich completed high school in New York City and altered the spelling of his surname.

After attending New York University, he joined the Philipp Brothers commodity trading company in 1954. Mr. Rich left the company in 1973 to start his own business, which soon overtook his former employer in scope.

In recent years, according to his company’s Web site, Mr. Rich contributed more than $135 million to charity, including medical, cultural and educational institutions.

Mr. Rich married Denise Eisenberg in 1966. They had a contentious divorce in the 1990s in which she received a settlement of several hundred millions dollars. She now lives in New York.

Mr. Rich’s second marriage, to Gisela Rossi, also ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Ilona Schachter-Rich and Danielle Kilstock Rich. When a third daughter, Gabrielle Rich, died of leukemia in 1996, Mr. Rich did not return for her funeral for fear of being arrested.

“I want very badly to be able to go back,” he once told Fortune magazine in a rare interview. “I think about the U.S. every day.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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