WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 (JTA) — A congressional committee is seeking more information from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak about his participation in the controversial pardon of Marc Rich.
The House of Representatives’ Government Reform Committee also released White House transcripts of conversations between the former Israeli leader and President Clinton, which show that Barak twice sought Rich’s pardon in the waning months of Clinton’s presidency and that the president remained undecided on the day before the pardon was announced.
A commodities trader, Rich was pardoned by Clinton on Jan. 20, during his last hours in office. He had been indicted on 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and violating trade sanctions with Iran, but fled to Switzerland in 1983 before standing trial.
In a letter sent to Barak last week, committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) sought answers about the former prime minister’s involvement in the Rich pardon, whom he thought it would benefit and why he and Clinton agreed that they should “not say much” about the pardon request.
Burton also sought information about Denise Rich, a prominent Democratic fund raiser and Marc Rich’s ex-wife. Burton asked whether Barak believed the pardon could be financially important to Clinton or the library he is building in Arkansas.
Burton is investigating whether the pardons were exchanged for donations to the library or other Democratic causes.
This is the second letter Burton has sent to Barak seeking information. In March, Barak sent a letter to the committee, addressing his participation in the Rich pardon in two paragraphs.
Barak wrote that he was approached by the chairman of Rich’s foundation, Avner Azoulay, a former Mossad agent who has “contributed a lot to the security of the State of Israel.”
“I raised the subject with President Clinton several times (probably three) in the course of routine telephone conversations during the last two or three months of his presidency and made a personal recommendation to him to consider the case,” Barak wrote.
Transcripts of Clinton’s conversations with Barak, obtained by the committee, show that Barak first raised Rich’s name to Clinton on Dec. 11, the same day Rich’s pardon petition was submitted, Burton claims.
Barak described Rich as a man who was “making a lot of philanthropic contributions to Israeli institutions and activities like education.”
“He violated certain rules of the game in the United States and is living abroad,” Barak reportedly told Clinton. “I just wanted to let you know that here he is highly appreciated for his support of so many philanthropic institutions and funds, and that if I can, I would like to make my recommendation to consider his case.”
Clinton responded that he was aware of the case because he knew Denise Rich.
“If your ex-wife wants to help you, that’s good,” Clinton said.
During the second conversation, Barak said he wanted to mention two names, Rich and another person, whose name was redacted. In addition to Rich, Barak was believed to support the pardon of Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who is serving a life sentence for spying on the United States for Israel.
Clinton did not pardon Pollard despite numerous public requests by American Jewish leaders.
Clinton told Barak he had received a “long memo” about Rich, but added., “it’s best that we not say much about that.”
“Ok, I understand,” Barak responded. “I’m not mentioning it in any place.”
Barak said the pardon could be important financially — it was not clear to whom — and Clinton described Rich’s case as “bizarre.”
In their final conversation, on the day before Rich’s pardon was announced, Clinton apparently raised the issue with Barak, and said he was having difficulty moving the pardon forward.
“Here’s the only problem with Rich: There’s almost no precedent in American history,” Clinton said. “There’s nothing illegal about it, but there’s no precedent.”
Clinton apparently was referring to the fact that Rich never stood trial because he fled to Switzerland.
“The question is not whether he should get it or not but whether he should get it without coming back here,” Clinton told Barak. “That’s the dilemma I’m working through. I’m working on it.”
The next morning, as Washington began to inaugurate George W. Bush, Rich’s name was on a long list of pardons, which also included a Jewish business associate of Rich, Pincus Green.
Rich’s pardon is believed to have been aided by a well-choreographed campaign to persuade Israeli and American Jewish leaders to advocate on his behalf, citing his charitable largesse. Rich donated to numerous hospitals and educational programs in Israel and to the Birthright Israel program, which sends young American Jews to Israel.
Several prominent American Jews wrote letters on Rich’s behalf, including Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council; and Marlene Post, North American chairwoman of Birthright Israel.
In Israel, then-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University and a former ambassador to the United States, all contributed letters on Rich’s behalf.
A New York federal prosecutor is investigating the Clinton pardons, and whether any laws were broken.
The transcripts are based on verbatim notes taken by White House aides. While the investigation is ongoing, a government reform committee spokeswoman said no Israeli or American Jewish official has sought for additional information.
Barak did not respond to a request for comment from JTA. A committee spokeswoman said Barak has yet to respond to its second request for information.