Source: The New York Times | March 29, 2001

Jews Rich, and Foxman

The A.D.L. and Rich


WASHINGTON. "You never made a mistake in your life?" an angry Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League, shouted over the phone. "What about when you worked for that anti-Semite Nixon?"

This good man, with a record of 36 years fighting for civil rights and against bigotry, was understandably distressed at a judgment parenthetically expressed in my previous column about the need to control the influence of money in politics.

It had just been revealed that Foxman - whose organization had received $250,000 over the years from Marc Rich - had not only written to President Bill Clinton urging forgiveness for the fugitive billionaire but was present at the creation of the pardon plot.

Thirteen months ago, according to Foxman, he met in Paris with a former Mossad agent now on the Rich Foundation payroll who had the month before pledged $100,000 to A.D.L. Foxman came up with the idea of asking Denise Rich, the divorced wife of the man on the lam for 17 years, to intercede with Clinton for a pardon.

He knew her only from "reading the columns," Foxman told reporters last weekend. However, he sat across the aisle from Mrs. Rich on Air Force Two when Clinton invited both of them to accompany the presidential party to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. It was logical for him to presume that Rich's former wife was on the government plane because she had some connection to the president.

That bright idea of Foxman's led to e-mail from Rich's top man in Israel to Rich lawyers in the U.S. Ultimately, a former Clinton White House counsel, Jack Quinn, used Denise Rich to circumvent expected Justice Department resistance to pardoning a defiant fugitive accused of the biggest tax rip-off in U.S. history.

Let me stipulate here that it is no sin to recommend mercy or point out good deeds done by unpopular targets of prosecutors. I regularly signed parole petitions for Nixon colleagues jailed after Watergate. And when prosecutor Charles Hynes led a New York Bar Association campaign to disbar a near-comatose Roy M. Cohn just before he died of AIDS, I denounced the vengeful lawyers as a pack of ghouls. I don't knock loyalty.

But at issue here is the ease with which an unpatriotic wheeler-dealer can manipulate fine organizations and hungry politicians here and abroad into expunging all unanswered charges from his record.

Would we have known about the A.D.L. advice to Rich and intercession on his behalf if Congress had not begun an investigation? Unlikely; though he reported fully to some 40 members of the A.D.L. national executive committee on Feb. 3, for six weeks after the pardon firestorm Foxman said nothing publicly.

Not until March 9, when the Burton committee contacted him, did A.D.L. release its official letter to Clinton whining about "Marc Rich's suffering." Only after cooperating with House investigators did Foxman admit publicly that it was his suggestion in Paris that led to the well- heeled Denise's exploitation of her access to "Number One."

In a March 19 letter to national commission members, he explained that his pardon request was partly "predicated on the fifteen years I knew of Marc Rich's generous philanthropy and good deeds," but lately "I began to question whether a person's good deeds should overshadow other aspects of his behavior. In hindsight this case probably should not have had my involvement as it was not directly in ADL's clear- cut mission. . . ."

That mission is to fight bigotry. The last time Foxman muddled it was to write Clinton asking for Jonathan Pollard's release; commission members privately slapped him down because that prosecution had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, either.

The time is ripe for the A.D.L. - and other do-good and advocacy groups, too - to take a hard look at the ulterior motives of their money sources. It's time to set out written policies to resist manipulation by rich sleazebags and to reprimand or fire staff members who do not get with the ethical program.

Abe dropped by my office a few minutes ago to take back that unfair telephone crack and answer questions about who sucked him into this mess, which takes some zip out of my conclusion. We wished each other a happy Passover.