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CLINTON 'BEWILDERED' BY FLAP OVER PARDON

Former President Bill Clinton said Thursday he is "bewildered" by the controversy over his pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, and he blamed Republicans for fueling the criticism.

In a telephone call to Geraldo Rivera, host of CNBC's "Rivera Live," the former president again denied any wrongdoing in pardoning a man who had faced federal charges of evading more than $48 million in taxes, fraud and participating in illegal oil deals with Iran.

"There's not a single, solitary shred of evidence that I did anything wrong, or that his (Rich's) money changed hands," Clinton said, according to Rivera. "And there's certainly no evidence that I took any of it."

Referring to support for the Rich pardon among many Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Clinton said, "Now, I'll tell what did influence me: Israel did influence me profoundly."

Rich's pardon petition included several letters of support from Israel, especially from Jewish charities to which he had contributed.

Clinton's comments were not recorded, but a transcript of Rivera's notes was provided to the Associated Press.

The pardon is the subject of congressional inquiries and a criminal investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in New York, which indicted Rich in 1983. Prosecutors are trying to determine whether Clinton was somehow bribed to grant the pardon.

"I was blindsided by this," Clinton told Rivera. "I just wanted to go out there and do what past presidents have done, but the Republicans had other ideas for me."

Clinton pointed out that Rich was once represented by lawyer Lewis Libby, now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

"It's terrible!" he told Rivera. "I mean, he had three big-time Republican lawyers, including Dick Cheney's chief of staff."

U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White confirmed Thursday that her office and the FBI are investigating whether federal laws were broken in the pardons of Rich and his partner, Pincus Green.

The probe is expected to examine bank and telephone records.

Critics have noted that Rich's former wife, Denise Rich, contributed an estimated $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library Fund, more than $1.1 million to the Democratic Party and at least $109,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.

Denise Rich has refused to answer questions before Congress, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination. Her spokesman has not returned calls seeking comment, but Rivera said he spoke to her Thursday.

"I spend half my time crying and half my time laughing," she said, according to Rivera. "But that's not so unusual for me -- I'm such an emotional person."

In other developments:

A House oversight committee widened its investigation of the presidential pardon by subpoenaing three of Clinton's top White House aides and asking the former president to permit them to speak freely about the controversy.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and a longtime Clinton critic, said he was issuing subpoenas to former White House counsel Beth Nolan, chief of staff John Podesta and presidential adviser Bruce Lindsey to testify March 1. All three expressed reservations about the pardon, according to sources.

A committee spokesman said the panel won't give immunity to Denise Rich until federal prosecutors decide whether to move ahead with their own criminal probe.

Sen. Clinton will return the campaign donations from Denise Rich if it turns out they had a foreign, and therefore illegal, source, a spokesman said Thursday.

Attorney Harold Ickes, who heads her federal political action committee, HILLPAC, said Clinton "has had no reason to believe" the funds she received (from Denise Rich) originated with her former husband, who became a citizen of Spain in 1982 and renounced his American citizenship.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Clinton's pardon of former CIA Director John Deutch for mishandling classified documents on his home computer, sources said today.

The committee sent a letter to CIA Director George Tenet to determine whether he was consulted before Clinton issued the pardon. A senior intelligence official responded that neither Tenet nor anyone else had been consulted, according to the Washington Post.

Washington Bureau Chief Douglas Turner contributed to this report.

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