ADL head denies quid pro quo over lobbying for Rich

NEW YORK — As the Marc Rich pardon casts its shadow over those who lobbied on his behalf, the head of the Anti-Defamation League is seeking to dispel impressions that he went to bat for the billionaire fugitive because of Rich's donations to the ADL.

Abraham Foxman, the national ADL director, summoned journalists to his New York offices last Friday to argue that he was not influenced by the $250,000 Rich gave the ADL over a period of 16 years. Last week, Foxman was questioned by congressional investigators about his allegedly pivotal role in the Rich pardon.

The most recent donation — for $100,000 — was pledged in the fall of 1999 and arrived in February 2000, Foxman said, shortly after Rich Foundation head Avner Azulay met with Foxman to discuss Rich's legal predicament.

"There's nothing dirty or ugly about it," Foxman told reporters. "The fact is he did give money, with no strings attached."

For some, Rich's donations and Foxman's involvement raise questions not only of a quid pro quo but about the propriety of America's leading fighter against anti-Semitism straying from his mission to lobby for a fugitive.

The incident also sheds light on how business is conducted and favors swapped among the elite and moneyed interests.

Foxman was among the prominent American Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians who lobbied President Clinton to pardon Rich. Clinton cited Jewish pressure as a reason for granting Rich clemency. The ADL chief was invited to Washington on March 19 for what he described as "a conversation" with the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, which is investigating the Rich pardon and others made by Clinton in the last days of his presidency.

Rich fled the United States in 1983 to avoid trial on charges of racketeering and evading $48 million in taxes. He also was accused of breaching U.S. sanctions against Iran by trading oil with the Islamic regime.

On Monday, in a column on campaign finance reform, prominent New York Times columnist William Safire called on Foxman to resign.

"The purchase of a pardon by Marc Rich haunts the Senate this week," Safire wrote. "The stain spreads; now we learn that the fugitive billionaire, with $250,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, induced its national director to lobby President Bill Clinton for forgiveness and thereby bring glee to the hearts of anti-Semites. (Abe Foxman should resign to demonstrate that ethical blindness has consequences.)"

In his meeting with journalists, Foxman insisted that Rich's donations had nothing to do with the ADL chief's support of the pardon.

Rich's largesse was a drop in the ADL bucket, considering that the organization's annual budget is about $50 million, Foxman said.

The ADL chief conceded, however, that "people give you money in anticipation that there will be a relationship. The guy who gives you $100 doesn't get as much attention as the guy who gives you $10,000."

Foxman expressed surprise that he has been mentioned as such a pivotal figure in the lobbying effort. He also said he was the first to recommend enlisting the aid of Rich's ex-wife, Denise, a wealthy New York socialite heavily involved in Democratic fund-raising.

On Dec. 7, Foxman wrote Clinton, urging him to pardon Rich. Had he known details then that he later discovered about the Rich case, Foxman said he would not have sent the letter.

After issuing a press release earlier last week saying that he "probably" should not have lobbied for Rich, Foxman went further last Friday.

"I'm not infallible; I'm capable of making mistakes," he said. "I made a wrong judgment because it wasn't directly on target with what ADL's mission is."