Remembering Marc Rich, the notorious fugitive pardoned by Clinton

"I am a Jew first," said the voice on the phone from thousands of miles away.

The call from Marc Rich had been weeks in the making and I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact it was not going to happen. Which, of course, was when he finally called. The rules were simple: it was all off the record and under no circumstances was I to ask about his pardon.

And while that was really the reason I wanted to talk with him, I figured if I could get him to trust me enough for that first conversation, eventually I might get him to talk about being the most notorious recipient of a pardon since Richard Nixon.

That phone conversation was years ago, but I recalled it this week when Rich died in a hospital after suffering complications from a stroke.

Rich had been pardoned by Bill Clinton on the president's last day in office. It was a move that set off a firestorm and led to Clinton eventually labeling the pardon "terrible politics."

When he got the pardon, Rich had been a fugitive from the United States for 17 years. He had moved to Switzerland after being indicted by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani on 65 counts that included tax evasion and doing business with Iran.

Rich, who made billions over his lifetime, is credited with inventing "the spot market for oil." He never denied doing business with Iran. For him, it was just that - business.

"I have a strong sense of loyalty to that which I believe in," he told me.

For Rich, that list had his religion, his family, his business and Israel in its identity as a Jewish state, not necessarily when it came to politics.

"I do not spend much time on politics," he said. "I am a businessman and that is where my concerns tend to lie."

Which is why he was able to do business with Iran while they held American hostages and with South Africa while they lived under a policy of apartheid.

Rich conceded that his reputation as someone driven by "the deal" was not entirely unfounded, but maintained it was a far from complete picture.

He amassed an art collection that included Picassos and works by Giacometti and Braque, donated to many arts and gave generously to Jewish causes around the world, establishing charitable foundations such as the Swiss Foundation for the Doron Prize and the Marc Rich Foundation for Education, Culture and Welfare.

Rich skied, played tennis, invested in Spanish real estate and developed a love for red wine and Cuban cigars.

"I am not ashamed of the money I have made," he said. "I just want to be clear that it does not define me."

At the time, he admitted that some of his choices had hurt him in ways he could have never anticipated.

There was no harder time for Rich than in 1996 when his 27-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, died of leukemia. Because of his decision to move to Switzerland, he could not return to be by her side as her health faded.

On Thursday, he was buried next to her on a kibbutz outside of Tel Aviv.

That first conversation led to a second in which he talked about growing up in the Midwest, his father and his early successes as a trader. There was talk of a trip to Switzerland to meet in person but it never happened.

I never had a chance to ask him about the pardon. And now, I never will.

Colin Miner is an assignment editor for KATU News. At the time of this conversation, he worked for The New York Sun.