NEW YORK (JTA) – As the Marc Rich pardon casts its shadow over those who lobbied on his behalf, the head of the Anti-Defamation League is seeking to dispel impressions that he went to bat for the billionaire fugitive because of Rich’s donations to the ADL.
ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, who was questioned by congressional investigators last week about his allegedly pivotal role in the Rich pardon, summoned journalists to his New York offices last Friday to argue that he was not influenced by the $250,000 Rich gave the ADL over a period of 16 years.
The most recent donation – for $100,000 – was pledged in the fall of 1999 and arrived in February 2000, Foxman said, shortly after Rich Foundation head Avner Azulay met with Foxman to discuss Rich’s legal predicament.
“There’s nothing dirty or ugly about it,” Foxman told reporters. “The fact is he did give money, with no strings attached.”
For some, Rich’s donations and Foxman’s involvement raise questions not only of a quid pro quo but about the propriety of America’s leading fighter against anti-Semitism straying from his mission to lobby for a fugitive.
The incident also sheds light on how business is conducted and favors swapped among elites and moneyed interests.
Foxman was among the prominent American Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians who lobbied President Clinton to pardon Rich. Clinton cited Jewish pressure as a reason for granting Rich clemency. The ADL chief was invited to Washington on March 19 for what he described as “a conversation” with the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, which is investigating the Rich pardon and others made by Clinton in the last days of his presidency.
Rich fled the United States in 1983 to avoid trial on charges of racketeering and evading $48 million in taxes. He also was accused of breaching U.S. sanctions against Iran by trading oil with the Islamic regime.
On Monday, in a column on campaign finance reform, prominent New York Times columnist William Safire called on Foxman to resign.
“The purchase of a pardon by Marc Rich haunts the Senate this week,” Safire wrote. “The stain spreads; now we learn that the fugitive billionaire, with $250,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, induced its national director to lobby President Bill Clinton for forgiveness and thereby bring glee to the hearts of anti-Semites. (Abe Foxman should resign to demonstrate that ethical blindness has consequences.)”
ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum described Safire’s comment as “ridiculous.”
“Mr. Foxman has no intention of resigning,” Shinbaum said.
A call to ADL National Chairman Glen Tobias was referred back to Shinbaum.
In his meeting with journalists – including reporters from Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press – Foxman insisted that Rich’s donations had nothing to do with the ADL chief’s support of the pardon.
Rich’s largesse was a drop in the ADL bucket, considering that the organization’s annual budget is about $50 million, Foxman said.
Foxman conceded, however, that “people give you money in anticipation that there will be a relationship. The guy who gives you $100 doesn’t get as much attention as the guy who gives you $10,000,” he added.
Foxman expressed surprise that he has been mentioned as such a pivotal figure in the lobbying effort. Foxman said he was the first to recommend enlisting the aid of Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, a wealthy New York socialite heavily involved in Democratic fund-raising. The idea was raised in a meeting initiated by the Rich Foundation’s Azulay, who asked Foxman for his advice on the pardon issue, Foxman said.
Foxman said he figured that the loss of Rich’s middle daughter to leukemia might have softened the enmity between the divorced couple.
On Dec. 7, Foxman wrote Clinton, urging him to pardon Rich. Had he known details then that he later discovered about the Rich case, he would not have sent the letter, Foxman said.
Foxman said he was led to believe by Rich’s backers that if the Switzerland-based commodities trader returned to America – to be by his dying daughter’s side, for example, or at her funeral – he would be jailed immediately.
Foxman now knows that was not quite true. Documents collected by congressional investigators indicate that the government was willing to show leniency toward Rich if he agreed to stand trial. Foxman also said he was unaware that Rich had renounced his U.S. citizenship. Rich also holds Spanish and Israeli citizenship.
After issuing a press release earlier last week saying that he “probably” should not have lobbied for Rich, Foxman went further last Friday.
“I’m not infallible; I’m capable of making mistakes,” he said. “I made a wrong judgment because it wasn’t directly on target with what ADL’s mission is.”
Foxman said he first met Rich in Switzerland through mutual acquaintances some 16 years ago, shortly after Rich fled abroad.
Rich approached him, Foxman said, because U.S. authorities’ robust prosecution efforts led Rich to believe that “what happened to him may have happened to him because of anti-Semitism.”
Foxman later told Rich that “unless he could produce evidence beyond his feelings, this was not something the ADL would undertake.”
Rich never followed up with concrete evidence, Foxman noted.
However, the two apparently hit it off well.
Foxman, who was born in what is today Belarus, said he learned that Rich was born in a nearby town. In “seven or eight” subsequent lunches and dinners through the years, the two sometimes conversed in Yiddish.
Never, it seems, did they discuss the more controversial aspects of Rich’s life.
For example, Foxman said, Rich never expressed regret for profiting from oil trades with Iran while that country occasionally accused some of its Jews of spying for Israel, and executed them. In fact, said Foxman – whose organization has been among Iran’s most outspoken critics during the current case of 10 Jews imprisoned for alleged espionage – he never broached the subject with Rich.
“We discussed cabbage and kings and Jewish life,” Foxman said.
Yet Rich did express an interest in defending Jews from anti-Semitism, and began to give money to the ADL. His only condition, Foxman said, was that the money be used for ADL programming, not for overhead.
The first project Rich funded was an exhibit celebrating 500 years of Jewish life in Latin America. Later, Rich’s money went toward a prejudice- reduction program in Europe and Israel called “A World of Difference.”
The Rich connection paid more than just financial dividends for the ADL, however.
“I value relationships because they help us do our job,” Foxman said.
In 1989-1990, for example, Romania’s revolution against the Communist authorities was accompanied by a wave of anti-Semitism.
Foxman asked Rich, who had business ties to Communist Romania, for help in reaching highly placed contacts. Rich’s people facilitated a meeting with then-Prime Minister Petre Roman, who condemned the anti-Semitic backlash.
Such deeds, and the philanthropic work of Rich’s foundation in Israel, convinced Foxman that Rich deserved a second chance.
America “is a country that bends over backward to give second chances,” Foxman said. “The extent of Marc Rich’s suffering has become disproportionate to his mistakes,” Foxman then wrote to Clinton. “His life has been committed to making the world a better place.”
But as reporters grilled Foxman last Friday, forcing him to recount three times the chronology of donations and pro-Rich lobbying, the ADL chief grew testy.
Journalists, he said, seem to be interested in pinpointing only one thing: “When was I bought?”