Robert H. Reid
and John Heilprin

GENEVA: He was a wheeler-dealer pardoned by another consummate deal-maker, a working-class Jewish boy who left Belgium to escape the Nazis and rose to become the billionaire “King of Commodities.”

Marc Rich’s connections to the rich and powerful not only made him fabulously wealthy but when he was indicted for fraud, racketeering and tax evasion on a grand scale, they helped secure him a pardon from Bill Clinton, hours before the U.S. president left office.

That triggered a political firestorm from critics who alleged Rich bought his pardon through donations that his ex-wife had made to the Democratic Party.

Rich died Wednesday of a stroke at a hospital in Lucerne, near his home for decades. He was 78, and his Israel-based spokesman, Avner Azulay, said he would be buried today in a kibbutz in Israel.

Throughout his storied career at the pinnacle of high finance, Rich was known as a man who could deliver the big deals, thanks to personal relationships he had forged with powerful figures around the world.

In a rare 1992 interview with NBC, Rich said that in his business, “we’re not political. … That’s just the philosophy of our company.”

Yet Rich cultivated contacts with powerful politicians — in the Middle East as well as the United States — and used those ties to make billions, often when it seemed all doors were closed.

During the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, Rich used his Middle East contacts to purchase crude oil from Iran and Iraq and made a fortune selling it to American companies.

In 1981, Rich and a partner bought 20th Century Fox, and three years later he sold his interest to Rupert Murdoch for $250 million.

But in 1983, while he was in Switzerland, Rich was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury on more than 50 counts of fraud, racketeering, trading with Iran during the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis and evading more than $48 million in income taxes. At the time it was the largest tax evasion case in U.S. history and could have earned him more than 300 years in prison.

Although the Swiss refused to arrest or extradite Rich, he stayed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, narrowly escaping capture in Finland, Germany, Britain and Jamaica, until Clinton granted him a pardon on Jan. 20, 2001 — the day he handed over the keys to the White House to George W. Bush.

Last-minute presidential pardons are not uncommon in the United States, but this one raised a furor. Critics believed the case showed that justice means one thing for ordinary people and another for powerful insiders.

Federal authorities investigated but found no evidence of wrongdoing. Bill Clinton also denied any wrongdoing and said he acted on advice by prominent legal experts not connected to the trader.