Fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose eleventh-hour pardon by former President Bill Clinton has caused a wave of controversy, spoke out for the first time Saturday, describing the pardon as a "humanitarian act."
In a statement distributed by a public relations office in Tel Aviv, Rich said his 1983 indictment by a federal grand jury in New York on charges of fraud, illegal oil deals with Iran and evading more than $48 million in taxes was a wrong that Clinton remedied.
"I do not consider the pardon granted by President Clinton as an eradication of past deeds, but as the closing of a cycle of justice and a humanitarian act," Rich said.
The pardon has become the subject of U.S. congressional hearings and a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney in New York.
Rich, who fled the United States after his indictment, described his life abroad for the past 18 years as a painful "exile," saying he was forced to live overseas because he did not think he would receive a fair trial.
The Belgian-born Rich grew up in the United States but renounced his U.S. citizenship. He holds Israeli and Spanish citizenship, and has lived in Switzerland since 1983.
"The indictment against me in the United States was wrong and was meant to hurt me personally," Rich said. "The pardon granted by President Clinton remedied this injustice 18 years later."
Statement laments plight
Rich regularly shuns interviews and had not spoken publicly since receiving the pardon Jan. 20, Clinton's last day in office. He said he issued the statement in response to the heightened media scrutiny.
In the statement, Rich lamented that he has not been able to return to the United States to visit his children and grandchildren. He said he was heartbroken by the refusal of U.S. authorities to let him visit his daughter Gabrielle, who died of leukemia in 1996 at age 27, or to attend her funeral.
Rich also defended his work as a philanthropist.
"I am happy and proud of my contributions to people and cultural and medical organizations in Israel, the United States and around the world," he said. "It is unfortunate that these acts are now being described as calculating acts."
Clinton has cited high-level Israeli support of Rich as one of the reasons he pardoned the billionaire. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a former chief of the Mossad spy agency were among top Israeli officials who pushed Clinton to pardon Rich.
Over the past 20 years, Rich has contributed up to $80 million to Israeli hospitals, museums, symphonies and the absorption of immigrants. He also had a role in helping Israel get Jews out of Ethiopia and Yemen.
Prosecutors, however, paint a different portrait.
Sandy Weinberg, a former federal prosecutor in New York, recalled his first meeting with Rich's attorney after Rich was indicted.
"He hired one of the best lawyers in the world, Edward Bennett Williams," Weinberg said. "And the first thing out of Williams' mouth when we met with him was an offer of $100 million to make the whole thing go away."
The offer was rejected out of hand. Weinberg said he told Williams, "It's not about money."
But Weinberg said that meeting defined his understanding of Rich.
"For Marc Rich, it's all about money," he said.
Businesses circle globe
Money, charm, sophistication, genius, modesty and generosity are some of the words used to describe the elusive billionaire.
Rich is one of the most successful commodity traders in the world, with subsidiaries and interests all over the planet, including refineries in Russia, timber-harvesting operations in Chile, aluminum mines in Jamaica and soybean farms and steel plants in the United States.
To the prosecutors he evaded for 18 years, Rich is a man with no apparent loyalty to any country or values.
He has given generously to Israel and even helped its espionage agents. But just as he traded with Iran during the hostage crisis and supplied oil to South Africa's apartheid regime, Rich deals with nearly all of Israel's Arab enemies.
"He will trade with anybody who will trade with him," Weinberg said. "That tells you something about the guy."
Like many Jewish families, Rich's fled Belgium as Hitler's armies rolled over Europe. He was 8 when his parents settled in Kansas City, Mo.
Rich's father, David, opened a jewelry store, which he sold in 1950, when he moved the family again, this time to New York City. He then bought part ownership in a burlap bag manufacturing company, which prospered when the Korean War generated huge Army contracts.
Marc Rich, then a teenager, was taken out of the public Forest Hills High School in Queens and enrolled at the Rhodes School, an exclusive preparatory academy on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He graduated and enrolled at New York University but soon left to work for Phillip Brothers, the largest raw-materials trader in the world.
Oil embargo opportunity
There Rich learned the business that would create his international fortune.
In 1973, as the Arab oil embargo created fuel shortages in the United States and Europe, he devised a method of obtaining and supplying crude oil for roughly twice the going rate. When the company refused to pay Rich a $1 million bonus, he quit, formed Marc Rich & Co. and took some of Phillip Brothers' top traders with him.
Over the years, Rich & Co. gradually eclipsed Phillip Brothers, and today it is a dominant player in the commodities market. With more than 40 offices worldwide and more than 1,000 employees, it has been called a "pawnshop for the mineral wealth of the Third World."
Dealings with Iran
Rich sold his stake in the now-renamed company in 1994 for more than $500 million but is still believed to play a leading role in commodities trading worldwide.
In 1966, he married Denise Eisenberg, the daughter of Jewish refugees who settled in New England and prospered after the war. The couple had three daughters, and Denise Rich became a successful songwriter.
Rich's legal troubles in the United States grew out of oil deals he arranged in 1979 and 1980. When the Western world embargoed Iran after the Islamic-fundamentalist coup and seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, he made deals with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He bought 6.2 million barrels of crude oil worth $200 million from the National Iranian Oil Co., according to the charges against him, and sold it at prices double the standard market rates.
His deals were not always just for basic commodities. The swap with Iran, prosecutors contend, involved supplying the ayatollah with weapons and exchanging North Korean gas-fired gyroscopes for American-made antiaircraft missiles that had been stripped of their guidance systems by American advisers after the fall of the shah.
The 51 federal counts filed against Rich in September 1983 included conspiracy, tax evasion, trading with the enemy and racketeering. Alerted to the case against him, he and his family had cleaned out their Park Avenue apartment the previous June and moved to a mansion in Switzerland.
After prosecutors rejected Rich's offer of $100 million, Rich & Co. agreed to plead guilty to tax evasion charges in 1984 and paid $171 million in fines. Rich raised the money, in part, by selling his half-interest in 20th Century Fox to his partner, oilman Marvin Davis.
The plea enabled Rich's firm to continue doing business in the United States despite a $500,000 reward that remained for his arrest.
He hired the best lawyers in the United States to defend him but made little headway. U.S. marshals made repeated, unsuccessful efforts to capture him.
Ex-wife returns to U.S.
He and his wife divorced in 1986 after she accused him of infidelity. She eventually returned to the United States with their daughters and a settlement totaling hundreds of millions.
Denise Rich became a Democratic Party fund-raiser and friends with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. She recently donated $450,000 to the new Clinton Library in Little Rock. She has denied any connection between those efforts and her former husband's pardon.
In 1998, Rich married Gisela Rossi.