WHAT CONCEIVABLE justification could there be for former president Clinton, on his last morning in office, to have pardoned fugitive financiers Marc Rich and Pincus Green? Indicted in 1983 in an oil trading scheme in which the government said it had been bilked of $50 million, the two fled to Switzerland, where they have ever since avoided trial. Their lawyers have argued that the charges against them were legally deficient and that the indictment would never have been brought today. Yet for nearly two decades, they have avoided making those arguments in court. Unlike most of those pardoned on Mr. Clinton's last day, Mssrs Rich and Green have never paid a fine, served a day in jail, disgorged a single dollar of allegedly ill-gotten gains or reimbursed U.S. taxpayers the money that is allegedly owed. On the contrary, while flouting the U.S. justice system in Swiss comfort, they have continued to amass enormous wealth, including in less-than-savory deals in post-Soviet Russia.

Mr. Rich's ex-wife in New York is a major donor to the Democratic Party. His lawyer, Jack Quinn, served as Mr. Clinton's White House counsel. For an ethical administration, neither would be a factor; we hope neither was. But Mr. Clinton has yet to offer any satisfactory explanation for an act that seems, on its face, indefensible.

The Rich pardon is not the only one of the president's 176 parting clemency actions that raises questions. Mr. Clinton commuted the sentences of three Hasidic Jews in New York, convicted of defrauding the federal government of millions by setting up a phony Yeshiva and garnering tuition grants. They come from a community important now to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Was there a better reason for mercy? Whitewater felon Susan McDougal, who became a celebrity for thumbing her nose at Kenneth Starr's grand jury and refusing to answer its legitimate questions, won a last-minute pardon. So did William Borders Jr., who went to jail rather than testify about a bribery scheme for which then-Judge Alcee Hastings, who later became a congressman, was acquitted. Precisely what message were these meant to send about a citizen's duty to give relevant evidence?

We have long complained that the pardon power is underused. A president so inclined could do much good with it -- freeing low-level drug criminals serving excessively harsh sentences, for example. Many of the pardons and commutations Mr. Clinton issued on his way out the door were in that constructive spirit. Yet they will be overshadowed. Indeed, with his scandalous present to Mr. Rich, Mr. Clinton has diminished the integrity and grandeur of the pardon power just as surely as he diminished the various privileges he abused by invoking them to defend his tawdry conduct in office. What a way to leave.