WASHINGTON – Marc Rich, a fugitive financier who made deals with shady international regimes and was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list before his controversial presidential pardon on Bill Clinton’s final day in office in 2001, died Wednesday at a hospital in Lucerne, Switzerland. He was 78.
He had a stroke, his company, the Marc Rich Group, said in a statement.
Called the “King of Commodities,” Rich dealt in almost anything that could be mined, harvested or drilled from the surface of the Earth, including oil, minerals, precious metals, timber and grain. At various times, he was reported to have virtual control over the international markets for aluminum, silver, tin and mercury.
In the early 1980s, he owned half of the 20th Century Fox studio in Hollywood before selling his share to Rupert Murdoch for $250 million. Forbes magazine named him one of the 400 richest Americans and estimated his personal fortune at $2.5 billion.
Rich defied oil embargoes, price controls and other legal niceties to buy oil from Iran and Iraq and resell it to apartheid-era South Africa and other pariah nations. Although notoriously shy of publicity, the multilingual Rich was said to have had personal dealings with many infamous dictators, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
His companies did business with Francisco Franco’s Spain, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya and, most notoriously, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the U.S. had a strict trade embargo against Iran — and when 52 Americans were held hostage in Tehran — Rich was negotiating deals to buy crude oil from the ayatollah’s government.
He was credited with developing the “spot market” business practice, or a short-term purchase that could be quickly resold for big profits. Concealing those profits led to Rich’s indictment in 1983 by federal prosecutors in New York, under the direction of then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani.
Rich and his business partner, Pincus “Pinky” Green, were charged with evading $48 million in U.S. income taxes and hiding more than $100 million in profits. The indictment enumerated more than 50 counts of tax evasion, racketeering, conspiracy and fraud. It was the largest tax evasion case in history at the time, and Rich could have been sentenced to more than 300 years in prison. One of the most damning charges against Rich — trading with the enemy, for his dealings with Iran — was later dropped.
Prosecutors turned down an offer to drop charges in return for a payment of $100 million. Several of Rich’s corporate interests ended up paying more than $200 million in fines and penalties, and some lower-level business collaborators went to jail. But the man himself could not be found. Before he could be arrested, Rich cleaned out his expansive Fifth Avenue apartment in New York and moved to Zug, Switzerland.
For years, Rich was on the FBI’s most wanted list, alongside Osama bin Laden. He was almost captured several times, including once while trying to board a plane in London in 1986. Five years later, Rich’s private jet turned around in midair en route to Finland, where U.S. agents were waiting to arrest him.
A personal plea from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was said to have helped persuade Clinton to pardon Rich. Clinton said he was following the advice of legal advisers and suggestions from, among others, the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Attorney General Eric Holder, then a deputy attorney general, also recommended the pardon.
Soon after the pardon was granted on Jan. 20, 2001, Clinton drew intense criticism when it was revealed that Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, had given more than $1 million to Democratic causes, including $450,000 to a foundation for Clinton’s library and museum. A subsequent federal investigation found no evidence that Rich had purchased his pardon through his ex-wife’s political contributions.
Holder, among others, had a change of heart. “Knowing everything that I know now,” he told the House Government Reform Committee, “I would not have recommended to the president that he grant the pardon.”
Rich remained in Europe for the rest of his life and was not known to have returned to the United States.