Several days after her defeat in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton pointed to the person to blame for her failure: FBI Director James Comey, who publicized three decisions about Clinton during the summer and inflicted a mortal blow on her image.
Is it possible that Comey’s actions are related to Bill Clinton’s 2000 pardon of Marc Rich – a Jewish billionaire who provided substantial assistance to Israel and fled the United States after being suspected of tax offenses? The pardon was granted after heavy pressure by none other than then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert and other prominent Israelis and American Jews.
Why did Comey decide, less than a week before the election and by means of a secret Twitter account that was barely used, to publicize the minutes of a 15-year-old investigation against Bill Clinton, on suspicion that he received a bribe in connection with that pardon?
In order to get the full picture we have to go back almost 40 years and learn about someone who was a subject of extensive coverage in the previous century, but is almost unknown to young people, except for the fact that his name is displayed on numerous universities, hospitals and cinematheques in Israel: Marc Rich, an American Jewish billionaire, the global “King of Oil” in the 1970s and 1980s, the man who carried out special missions for the State of Israel and the Mossad, a donor who channeled over a billion shekels to Israel – and a man who was pursued by the U.S. legal authorities on suspicion of tax evasion, money laundering and commercial ties with the enemy.
According to “The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich,” a book written by Swiss business journalist Daniel Ammann, Rich, who died in 2013, was a Jew who fled from Belgium in 1940 with his family when German planes began their bombing, passed through Morocco and finally arrived in the U.S., where he began working as a trader in metals and commodities. His career took off, and together with his partner Pincus Green – an observant Jew who now lives in Jerusalem – established the Mark Rich trading company, which eventual became Glencore, a Swiss trading company that is currently no. 14 on the Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest companies, thanks to an annual business turnover of $170 billion.
Rich had a special talent for creating contacts and making deals in places where it was hard for others to operate, and with partners who are not always on good terms with the international community. Rich also worked with various types of metals, but he made his fortune by trading in oil with countries like Iran, South Africa, Bolivia, Spain – and Israel.
For Israel, Rich was not just another oil trader. According to Ammann and other sources with whom we spoke, in the years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the ensuing global Arab oil embargo, a period when nobody wanted to sell oil to Israel, for almost 20 years Rich was the main source of the country’s oil and energy needs. It’s hard to believe, but he supplied Israel mainly with oil purchased from Iran – both during the days of the Shah and after the Islamic Revolution. Rich, almost single-handedly, channeled oil to the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company, a joint Israeli-Iranian initiative and today a subject of complex international arbitration.
Rich, who at this point worked from a company located in Switzerland, also helped Israel in other ways, for example, as a source of funding for secret financial arrangements. His worldwide offices, according to several reliable sources, frequently served Mossad agents, with his consent.
After the terror attack in October 1985 in Ras Burqa in Sinai, in which an Egyptian soldier murdered seven Israelis, when the negotiations for compensation between the families of the victims and Egypt had reached a dead end and led to a diplomatic crisis, it was Rich who spent about half a million dollars of his own money in order to solve the crisis. Rich also helped to bring Jewish families from Yemen and Ethiopia to Israel, and donated money to advance cooperative ventures between Israel and Palestinians and for children in Gaza.
Rich was also involved in attempts that didn’t work out, such as a plan for economic development in the territories, which was frozen by the Palestinians, and an idea that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried to promote to solve the conflict with Iran surrounding the pipeline. Rich proposed purchasing Israel’s share in the pipeline and then conducting direct commercial negotiations with Iran, which Israel cannot do. But the transaction was rejected due to the opposition of Finance Ministry officials, to Rabin’s great chagrin.
Rich, whose wealth was estimated in 2006 by Forbes to be over $1.5 billion, donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel through the Rich Foundation, which was run by former Mossad agent Avner Azulay. The foundation donated money to dozens of projects, including the construction of buildings at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv universities, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, hospitals and other institutions. Another prominent project is Taglit, or Birthright, which brings young Jews for a first visit to Israel. Rich donated about $1 million annually to the program and became one of the three major donors, along with Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt.
Rich did in fact work for Israel through numerous channels, and donated large sums of money, but he also profited from his business with Israel. As Israel’s main oil supplier for years, both for the country’s own needs and for operating the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, Rich benefited from high revenues with which – along with his activity in other countries – he accumulated his extraordinary wealth.
At the height of his power, in the 1960s and 1970s, he was considered the person who single-handedly created the global spot oil market: Until then the vast majority of oil contracts were based on long-term agreements between countries and large and established oil companies, whereas Rich developed the option of purchasing oil for immediate supply in a one-time transaction, just as currency or shares are traded – and the oil market changed. Rich knew how to work well especially with countries with dubious reputations and with clients who preferred to maintain secrecy – and to earn hefty fees for himself from these transactions.
But parallel to becoming wealthy, Rich began to have problems with the American legal authorities. If until 1981 nobody in the U.S. knew his name, despite him being one of the wealthiest people in the country, when several oil traders leaked the fact that Rich was evading taxes by using companies outside the U.S. they created what was quickly dubbed “the largest tax evasion ever.” Two years later, in 1983, for fear of being arrested and sent to prison, Rich and his partner Green fled to Switzerland, where the authorities told the Americans that they would not extradite them – and they never returned to the U.S.
The Americans didn’t give up: In addition to the tax evasion charges they accused Rich of money laundering and of trading with Iran during and after the hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and Rich reached the top of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. He was able to visit only three countries, whose governments decided to reject the Americans’ extradition requests: Switzerland, where he lived and worked; Spain, due to the many years he lived there and the business he did with the regime; and Israel – which provided him with citizenship.
Comey and Giuliani in pursuit
The saga of the almost 20-year pursuit of Rich by American prosecutors and investigators, and the ways in which he succeeded in evading them, could serve as a script for a TV series. But at this point what affects our story is actually the identity of those prosecutors and investigators, and two of them in particular: Rudolph Giuliani and James Comey. Giuliani, the main and almost sole establishment figure who participated in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, now a candidate for a cabinet position and for being in charge of the relationship with Israel, was the man who as federal prosecutor in 1983 read the American indictment against Rich – and from then on never stopped pursuing him.
While Rich claimed that Giuliani had decided to build his public career on the case, Giuliani presented no fewer than 51 different charges against him in his lawsuit, and confronted the Swiss authorities demanding his extradition.
Comey, on the other hand, in the role of the assistant district attorney, encountered Rich several times. Once he sent his men to arrest Rich in London, but the billionaire’s private plane had returned to Zurich due to fog that covered the British airport. Another time, in June 1992, after years of pursuit, Comey agreed to go to Switzerland to meet with Rich and his attorneys in an attempt to reach an agreement that would bring him to trial. During the meetings Rich’s attorneys expressed the opinion that the oil tycoon had not violated the law, and that even if there was a disagreement about the amount of taxes, it was not a criminal case.
But the Americans saw things differently, and refused to discuss the evidence until Rich gave himself up, came to the U.S. and stood trial. Rich, who according to Ammann said: “I’m innocent, I like being free,” refused, and Comey returned home empty-handed.
Rich’s evasiveness is only the first part, or perhaps the first layer, of the frustration felt by the two American prosecutors. The real, major crisis came much later, in January 2001 – when Bill Clinton, on his last day as president, decided to pardon Rich, which meant canceling the criminal proceedings against him. And this pardon was obtained for Rich by none other than former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Already from the start this pardon, which was organized behind the scenes by Avner Azulay, was strange. As opposed to others who received pardons, although Rich was indicted he wasn’t tried, wasn’t convicted, didn’t serve a prison sentence and didn’t even live in the U.S. – he continued to live in a luxurious village on the banks of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. After several failed attempts to enter the list of candidates for clemency, with the help of the expensive attorneys with ties to Clinton who only complicated the legal picture, Rich’s people decided to turn to Clinton directly – an unusual but legal step.
This kind of pardon could be obtained only by someone very close to the Clintons. With the help of attorney Jack Quinn, who had previously been a member of Clinton’s staff, Clinton received a request signed by Barak, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert (then mayor of Jerusalem), Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, Spanish King Juan Carlos and a number of leading members of the Jewish community in the U,S., Switzerland and the world of finance.
But it was then-Prime Minister Barak who, in addition to signing the request, also took action to convince Clinton to take the step. He held two persuasive discussions with the outgoing president, in which he applied a great deal of pressure on him to sign the pardon. In one conversation – according to social activist Eldad Yaniv, who was present in the next room – Barak shouted at Clinton, insisting that he approve the pardon. In addition there was also a conversation with Peres.
This is what Yaniv writes in his online book “U-Turn”: “[The pardon] could be important,” Barak shouted at Clinton. “Not only from the financial aspect, but also because he helped the Mossad in more than one instance.” Later, during the investigation of Bill Clinton, the U.S. authorities published the texts of the phone conversations between Clinton and Barak: Clinton said, “I know quite a few things about that. I just got a long memo and am working on it. It’s best that we not say much about that.” Barak replied: “OK, I understand. I’m not mentioning it in any place.” The investigators also deal extensively with the question as to what exactly Barak meant when he mentioned the “financial aspect” to Clinton.
Did everyone who signed the request for Rich’s pardon do so only in order to express their thanks for his service and his contribution to the State of Israel? After the pardon was granted questions were raised as to whether Rich had given money to any of the signatories, for example to the NGOs that helped Barak’s election campaigns – but nothing was ever proven. After these suspicions were raised the directors of Rich’s philanthropic foundation hastened to present its documents to the police in order to make it clear that the foundation had not given such money, although that does not constitute proof that the money wasn’t transferred: Rich could have transferred payments and contributions from other bank accounts. There were definitely ties there, although Rich’s worldview was closer to that of right-wing prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir than to that of Barak and the Labor Party.
Here’s one fact that illustrates the ties: Michal Herzog, wife of opposition chairman Isaac Herzog who at the time was Barak’s chief of staff, was in charge of philanthropic projects in education, culture and welfare in Israel on behalf of the Rich Foundation from 1996 to 2004. Herzog himself chose to maintain the right to remain silent when he was questioned regarding the NGOs that financed Barak’s campaign.
Did Barak receive money from Rich in exchange for pressuring Clinton to pardon him? Did Olmert, Peres or others who signed the request for a pardon receive contributions or money from a man whose greatest area of expertise was doing business with some of the most shady and corrupt governments in the world? These issues which came up at the time have never been disclaimed or confirmed.
The ex enters the picture
On the other hand, the Clintons did in fact receive money ostensibly unconnected to Rich’s pardon – and this is the money that destroyed the Clintons’ reputation and drove Giuliani, Comey and the entire American legal and political establishment crazy. Where did the money come from? Let us introduce you to Denise Eisenberg Rich, Rich’s ex-wife.
Rich separated from his wife while they were living in Switzerland, and the parting was not amicable. He left her almost $300 million and enabled her to live a life of luxury, and afterwards married an Italian actress decades his junior. The angry Denise returned with their children to the U.S. and enjoyed a successful career as a high-society woman in New York and a writer of popular songs – she penned songs for Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Patti Labelle and Mary J. Blige, among others. Some of them made the top of the hit parades.
Denise met the Clintons because of her close relationship with the Democratic Party – and agreed to the request by Rich’s people to pressure Clinton to peruse the request for a pardon. After the fact, 16 years later, it’s hard to decide which connections and which pressures tipped the balance and convinced Clinton to sign the pardon, but there’s no question about what happened afterwards: Denise gave the Clintons furniture worth $7,000 for their new home, $100,000 to Hillary Clinton’s New York senatorial campaign, donated about $450,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library – the couple’s main project when they left the White House – donated $1 million to the Democratic Party and helped to raise millions more with fundraising events in her luxurious Manhattan apartment.
Denise confirmed the reports dismissively as small change in a conversation with Vanity Fair magazine in June 2001: “Everybody gave furniture,” she said. “There was a list going around from the decorator.
“The truth is, there are a lot more people who gave a lot more money. Of course it gave me access [to the Clintons],” she admitted, “but it went beyond that. There was truly a friendship with both of them.”
But according to Vanity Fair, since the pardon she has not heard from her good friends.
If we in Israel have long since forgotten the connections between Rich and the politicians, the Americans never forgave him for that. When in early 2000 Republican Senator John McCain, who later ran for the presidency and lost to Barack Obama, was asked his opinion on the need for campaign-finance reform, he replied: “I have a two-word answer: Denise Rich.”
From the moment the story got around in the U.S., it became a huge national scandal and a mortal blow to the reputations of Clinton and his wife Hillary. The stench from the affair was so bad that even the FBI was left with no choice but to open an investigation against Clinton – an investigation that didn’t lead to an indictment but preoccupied the American public and media, and returned to harm the Clintons 16 years later: That is precisely the investigation report published by the FBI on Twitter a week before the recent U.S. elections.
There was absolutely nothing new in the report, most of whose content was blacked out by the censor, but it reminded millions of Americans of the story of Marc and Denise Rich, Ehud Barak and the money the Clintons received a few days after leaving the White House. As could be expected, Trump supporters didn’t miss out on the story of Rich’s pardon and the suspicions against the Clintons – Trump’s election website carried the following large headline, which is designed to revile Hillary Clinton: “Follow the money. The price for Marc Rich’s pardon? $450 thousand for the Clinton Presidential Library.”
Yes – the Marc Rich affair may be the cornerstone on which Clinton’s opponents built her image as a corrupt politician who is deeply mired in the business-government swamp. “Dry Up the Swamp” was a popular Trump slogan.
This wheel has never stopped turning, over 35 years after the Americans raised the initial suspicions against Rich and three years after he died at the age of 78 and was buried on Kibbutz Einat at a modest ceremony attended only by a few dozen people, without his family.
When Bill Clinton was suspected of having accepted a bribe from Denise Rich, it was none other than Comey who investigated him, and it was he who decided to shelve the case. Giuliani, who may soon be a member of Trump’s cabinet, started his career as an investigator and prosecutor in pursuit of Rich. Comey, whether for lack of choice or because he had had a bellyful of the Clintons’ treatment of Rich, was responsible for her defeat in the election and Trump’s entry into the White House – at least according to Hillary herself.
In an article he published in The New York Times in February 2001 entitled “My Reasons for the Pardons,” Bill Clinton enumerated a series of legal reasons justifying the decision, in his opinion, swore that there was no quid pro quo (a term meaning receiving something in exchange for something, which came up often during the battle between Clinton and Trump), but admitted that he should have attributed more importance to opposition to the pardon on the part of major figures in his legal network. Bill Clinton almost apologized, Hillary Clinton lost the election, Marc Rich is dead. Is that the end of the story?
Apparently not. One of the burning issues preoccupying the American public this week was the question as to whether Trump, perhaps through Giuliani, will prosecute Hillary for the affair of the emails as he promised, and if the person who will save her from prison is none other than President Barack Obama, who can pardon her on his last day on the job.
One of the considerations against the idea: A presidential pardon for someone close to him, as in the case of Rich and Bill Clinton, and Comey’s decision not to prosecute Hillary, will only strengthen the feeling in the American public that there are people who are above the law. All this, including the election defeat, might not have happened to Hillary Clinton had Ehud Bark not decided to make two phone calls to Bill Clinton on Rich’s behalf, because of the “financial aspect” that the two decided not to talk about. Our guess: There is more to come.