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Prof. Benton Becker Testifies Before Senate Judiciary Committee Regarding Marc Rich Pardon

Aired February 14, 2001 - 1:14 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We are watching two significant events from Washington today, two hearings up on Capitol Hill. The one you have been following is the hearing surrounding the pardon, the presidential pardon by Bill Clinton of the fugitive financier Marc Rich. That pardon granted in the final day of the Clinton presidency.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee now looking into the pardon. Sen. Orrin Hatch says that former President Bill Clinton should consider testifying before Congress to clear the air. And even the ranking Democrat on that committee, Patrick Leahy, suggests that President Clinton has not taken his pardon power seriously enough.

We will continue following that pardon hearing as it continues on here. But that's not all that's happening today.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, Lou. We're also watching election 2000 hearings, which are under way today in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, led by Republican Bill Tauzin of Louisiana. Congress members are looking into the debacle of the networks' coverage of election 2000 and what happened that night.

In about one hour, we will be hearing from some of the executives with the major networks, including CNN. We expect the first panel to be seated in about 15 minutes.

So we will also provide live coverage as Congress explores what happened on the night after voters went to the polls. So we'll be bringing you parts of that as well.

WATERS: And you are watching now the committee hearing over the pardon of Marc Rich. He is the man who fled to Switzerland in 1983 as prosecutors in New York prepared federal charges of tax evasion fraud and participation in illegal oil deals with Iran. The chairman of the committee has turned over the investigation to Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican from Pennsylvania. He's taken over the investigation. And Sen. Hatch says he expects Sen. Specter to go as far as he can into this investigation.

Benton Becker is testifying now before the committee. And we will rejoin now and pick up where we left off.



SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: When you talk about withholding funding, somebody has suggested that if you take a look at this president and seek to reach him in a specified way, it would be a bill of attainder. Now, of course, a bill of attainder is a criminal reference.

But could you constitutionally really direct a rifle shot at the president by withholding funding on a collateral matter, or taking away his pension? Some talk about that. Or taking away his Secret Service guard, or making him have an office on the 10th floor?

SCHROEDER: No, Mr. Chairman, I don't think, at this juncture, that the Congress can or should do any of those things. I was talking about looking forward. You could set up a regime not to attack the president's salary, but simply to withhold from him the normal availability of federal employees to vet and work on extraordinary pardons, if you wanted to do that. So that if he wanted to do something behind closed doors...

SPECTER: That would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face, if you cut off the funding for people to vet extraordinary pardons. We want more people to vet them on the off chance that if he finds out about them, he'll do the right thing.

SCHROEDER: Well, that would be the point of the first part, of having a system of transparent vetting that the Justice Department had to employ whenever a pardon application came in the door, or whenever the president referred one.

But as long as you've got to deal with the fact that the president can act autonomously if he or she wants to, it seems to me, if you placed those autonomous pardons outside the system, you'd really be raising the stakes of justification of a president. "Why Mr. President, did you choose to go outside the system and not avail yourself of the normal apparatus?" would become, I think, a quite salient question that might be very difficult for a president to answer unless he had a very good reason. In which case, you would want him to do it.

SPECTER: Professor Becker, I've ignored the red light because there is only one other person who can follow my lead, and that is Senator Sessions. And he's privy to do so when I'm finished.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: I'm very interested in your questions.

SPECTER: I was intrigued by our conversation last week where you described your representation of President Ford, counsel to him on the Nixon pardon, and how that played through, and how you made the suggestion as to your consulting with President Nixon and raised the issue that even with a pardon, there was still technically an opportunity for impeachment.

Would you recount that for the record?


In August of 1974, when President Nixon resigned and President Ford was elevated to the presidency, approximately three days later, after Mr. Nixon had arrived in California, he called the Ford White House and spoke to Alexander Haig, the chief of staff, and directed Mr. Haig to send to Mr. Nixon in California all the records, papers and tapes that had accumulated during the five years of the Nixon presidency. Those records, papers and tapes had -- particularly with reference to the tapes -- had rather important significance to ongoing litigation and history.

There were many people in the White House that felt that President Ford should comply immediately and send all of those documents and tapes to Mr. Nixon. There were a few people that felt to the contrary and I was one of those.

President Ford asked the Justice Department to give him an opinion on the ownership issue of who owned those records, papers and tapes accumulated by a president who was no longer in office, and the Department of Justice ultimately gave President Ford an opinion that said they belonged to Richard Nixon; they're Richard Nixon's personal property.

And that gave rise to even greater pressure on the president of the United States, who had been president a number of two weeks, two and a half weeks, from everyone in the White House; virtually, the Nixon staff inherited by President Ford, urging him and urging him to send those documents and tapes to San Clemente.

To his great, great credit and political courage, President Ford refused to do so and insisted that those records would not leave the possession of the government of the United States. And I was asked to try to negotiate some disposition of those records, papers and tapes with Mr. Nixon and his counsel, Jack Miller, and those conversations led into conversations respecting the possibility of the issuance of a pardon to Mr. Nixon, and I reviewed the precedence on pardon for President Ford advising him of the scope of his presidential power.

One of the matters that we were concerned with was the obvious question, Senator, of pardon pre-indictment, pardon's pre-conviction and/or the question of whether or not, even if a pardon were issued by President Ford, if the Senate choose to proceed with an impeachment trial against President Nixon and with a House vote, what effect would a pardon have on President -- on the impeachment proceeding? The impeachment proceeding, even though a resigned president, was technically possible. The impeachment of an executive involves three things from a constitutional standpoint: the loss of the office, which had already occurred by virtue of the resignation; the loss of the emoluments, which had not occurred by virtue of the resignation; and the loss of the right to hold high office in the future, which had clearly not occurred.

So the Senate had a string of jurisdiction if they wanted to retain, back in '74, the question of an impeachment trial and they did not. Obviously, they did not do so and ultimately, as you know, Senator, a series of lengthy negotiations occurred between myself and Mr. Nixon's counsel and Mr. Nixon in California that resulted in Mr. Nixon turning over the records, papers and tapes to the government of the United States, which were later modified and codified by an act of Congress.

SPECTER: Did you discuss with President Nixon or his counsel the technical possibility of an impeachment even after the president left office by way of resignation?

BECKER: I believe I discussed it with Jack Miller at one time. In my conversation with President Nixon, we did not discuss impeachment. We discussed other matters.

SPECTER: Was Jack Miller surprised to hear that that was a possibility?

BECKER: My recollection was that Jack adopted my view that it was a mere technical possibility and not likely.

WATERS: We were a little confused before. This is professor Benton Becker, University of Miami Law School, who was an adviser to President Ford on the pardon of Richard Nixon. And as you know, that's one of history's most famous pardons. And professor Becker said this week that he saw no parallels between the Nixon and Rich pardons, other than the controversy that followed both of them. Mr. Nixon not a fugitive, said professor Becker, Mr. Nixon had not renounced his citizenship, Mr. Nixon did not run from the law -- so I fail to see any parallels.

There have been many members of Congress who have been referring back to the famous Nixon pardon as some sort of precedent here. Professor Becker seems to think there is none.


ALLEN: We've been bringing you hearings from the Senate Judiciary Committee as this committee has probed, like a House committee last week, the controversial pardon of Marc Rich by former President Clinton.

Earlier today, we heard from an attorney with the Justice Department who testified that President Clinton's pardon of Rich was not handled anything approaching the normal way.

Let's talk with CNN's Bob Franken, who can tell us about the highlights from this day.

And now we're hearing that this hearing has adjourned, Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as a matter of fact some people might consider that the highlight, but there are others who, of course, are following every little bit of this.

And probably the most significant testimony came from the first panel. The first panel included Roger Adams, who is the pardons attorney at the Justice Department, who said that there was no consultation, no following the normal procedures for a pardon in this case. He described a matter where the fact that Marc Rich and Pincus Green, his partner, who also pardoned, were fugitives became known only at the very last minute. And he spoke of it 1:00 a.m. on the last night of the Clinton presidency, sending material to the White House with that kind of information -- with discussions that went throughout the night. Before the next morning, shortly before he left office, Bill Clinton in fact signed pardons for, among all the others that he did, Pincus Green and the one most prominent, Marc Rich.

You also had an appearance by Jack Quinn. Jack Quinn is the former White House counsel who represented Rich. And they went through much of the same debate, that debate being over whether in fact Marc Rich, 17 years ago, when he fled the country, had been validly prosecuted. There was some argument about that, but it covered no new ground from when we watched last week.

The other discussion was with a group of law professors, one of whom was Benson Becker, who was the man who advised Gerald Ford in 1974 on the pardon of Richard Nixon. And you will recall, of course, that that was so highly controversial -- those who remember the Watergate days -- extremely controversial. As a matter of fact, Gerald Ford came and testified before Congress about that, and of course, some -- some of the senators suggested that maybe -- suggested, implied -- that maybe Bill Clinton should do the same kind of thing.

No word on that. But it was that kind of discussion.

Senator Arlen Specter, who ran this hearing, has proposed that perhaps the Constitution should be amended to take away the absolute pardon power that the president of the United States has and allow Congress six months after the pardon is granted to decide whether it will uphold the pardon. It would take a two-third votes to overturn it. So it was that kind of discussion.

There was no real new material that was disclosed, other than some of the color, particularly that of the involvement of the pardons attorney, Roger Adams.

ALLEN: And, Bob, where does this go here from now? We still have Denise Rich that the House Committee would like to hear from. And they're trying to get a hold of more of her financial records, correct?

FRANKEN: Right. The flurry of subpoenas, thus far, has came out from the House committee -- Denise Rich, the ex-wife of Marc Rich, who weighed in asking President Clinton to favorably consider the pardon request. The question is -- she is a very significant Democratic contributor. Some people have suggested that maybe that influenced the decision by President Clinton. There is also an effort to find out if Denise Rich was getting contributions from overseas from her ex-husband, Marc Rich.

And that brings up other questions. One of the questions is: Is he considered a U.S. citizen? He repudiated his citizenship when he left the United States in 1983. But the process was never completed. The last decision from the State Department is, apparently, it considers him still a U.S. citizen. So there would be no law-breaking if, in fact, he sent money over that was turned into political contributions. This is a very tangled web.

But the first thing that is happening is, the records of Denise Rich are being very closely subpoenaed: bank records, financial records, etcetera. They are also trying to get information from the Secret Service about the involvement of Jack Quinn. We pointed out a few minutes ago he was the former White House counsel who represented Rich and had direct access to President Clinton. So this is not over, at least unless somebody decides: OK, we have taken this for about all that we can -- Natalie.

ALLEN: And that's what -- excuse me -- the Bush administration would like them to do. They said they would like Congress to move on, of course, so that they can concentrate on the Bush administration's legislative agenda -- excuse me -- I am getting all choked up over this.

Bob Franken, thanks. We will continue to follow, of course.



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