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Billionaires Behaving Badly: Marc Rich

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Famously pardoned by Bill Clinton, the "king of oil" traded with brutal regimes around the world.

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Members of a younger generation may draw blanks when asked to recall Marc Rich, but for three decades he was the world's most powerful and secretive oil trader, an international fugitive from American law enforcement for the "largest tax evasion ever" (in the words of then-prosecutor Rudy Giuliani), racketeering and trading with Iran during the hostage crisis.

Swiss journalist Daniel Ammann interviewed Rich, now 75, for his extraordinary book, The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich (2009, St. Martin's Press). It was Rich's first interview in more than 20 years. As Ammann describes, before Rich was pardoned by Bill Clinton in the last hours of his presidency, he had earned billions over 16 years selling oil for the Iranian ayatollahs, much of it to Israel and apartheid South Africa. Rich secretly helped enemies become strange bedfellows.

Even Iran's taking of 53 American hostages in 1979, which sparked the American oil embargo, didn't stop Rich's business. The embargo and the Iranian Revolution that same year proved a boon for him. The anti-Semitic, anti-American fundamentalist clerics had no problem trading with the Jewish-American businessman.

"We performed a service for them," Rich told Ammann. "We bought the oil, we handled the transport, and we sold it. They couldn't do it themselves, so we were able to do it."

The contract continued through the two-year hostage crisis, after the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Iran and prohibited the import of its oil. Rich's company, the Swiss-based Marc Rich + Co, purchased approximately 60 to 75 million barrels of Iranian oil every year up to 1994, according to Amman.

In 1983, Rich, who as a boy had fled the Holocaust with his parents from Belgium to the United States, was indicted in the Southern District of New York on 51 counts for the above mentioned crimes, and a charge that he failed to pay $100 million in taxes. He fled to Switzerland and ended up on the FBI's Most Wanted list. He dodged American law enforcements agents for almost two decades until his presidential pardon. "I was painted as the biggest devil," Rich told Amman during one of their conversations.

Rich's most important clients for that Iranian oil – Israel and South Africa – were two countries to which the new Islamic regime explicitly prohibited its sale. Israel and South Africa were almost completely dependent on it. For many years, Rich provided Israel with one out of every five barrels that it needed. His trade to South Africa, which was under international embargo, was even more significant.

"Iranian inner circles were well aware of Rich's dealings with Israel and South Africa, and with American oil companies such as the Atlantic Richfield Company," Ammann wrote recently. "They knew exactly where their oil was flowing; yet no one at the National Iranian Oil Company seemed to mind." The Atlantic Richfield Company, or ARCO, became a subsidiary of BP (BP) in 2000.

"They didn't care," Rich told Ammann. "The professionals in the oil business in Iran didn't care. They just wanted to sell oil."

Rich loved skiing, Cuban Cohiba cigars and special Spanish red wine. He had several homes, in Switzerland and Spain, and at least three passports. By the time of his pardon he was hiding in plain sight in Switzerland. The pardon drew sharp rebuke from Democrats and Republicans, especially when it was reported that ex-wife Denise Rich, a Manhattan socialite, had donated over a million dollars to the Clintons.

The commodities trade is often done by governments, and given his dealings with rogue regimes, in Cuba, Angola, Jamaica, and elsewhere, Rich became an asset to intelligence agencies here and abroad. He acknowledges bribing heads of state and breaking international embargoes.

As Salon's Joe Conason wrote during the 2009 Senate hearing on Eric Holder's nomination for attorney general, continuous lobbying on Rich's behalf from the highest Israeli leaders and their American friends became intense in Clinton's final days, coinciding with the president's push for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Rich's deals in Iran and Iraq, Conason wrote, "were often related to his other role – as an asset of the Mossad who gathered intelligence and helped to rescue endangered Jews from those regimes."

To this day, Rich says that as a Swiss company his business was legal. The U.S. felt differently. He has not returned to the U.S., meaning he has not used his pardon. If he did return, he would first have to pay tens of millions of dollars he owes in back taxes, a condition set by Clinton. For Rich, being a fugitive financier living in European luxury seems more appealing.

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