March 29, 2001

                       The A.D.L. and Rich
                        By WILLIAM SAFIRE

WASHINGTON - "You never made a mistake in your life?" an angry
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation    
League, shouted over the phone. "What about when you worked for
that anti-Semite Nixon?"

This good man, with a record of 36 years fighting for civil rights
and against bigotry, was understandably distressed at a judgment
parenthetically expressed in my previous column about the need to
control the influence of money in politics.

It had just been revealed that Foxman - whose organization had
received $250,000 over the years from Marc Rich - had not only
written to President Bill Clinton urging forgiveness for the
fugitive billionaire but was present at the creation of the pardon

Thirteen months ago, according to Foxman, he met in Paris with a
former Mossad agent now on the Rich Foundation payroll who had the
month before pledged $100,000 to A.D.L. Foxman came up with the
idea of asking Denise Rich, the divorced wife of the man on the lam
for 17 years, to intercede with Clinton for a pardon.

He knew her only from "reading the columns," Foxman told reporters
last weekend. However, he sat across the aisle from Mrs. Rich on
Air Force Two when Clinton invited both of them to accompany the
presidential party to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. It was logical for
him to presume that Rich's former wife was on the government plane
because she had some connection to the president.

That bright idea of Foxman's led to e-mail from Rich's top man in
Israel to Rich lawyers in the U.S. Ultimately, a former Clinton
White House counsel, Jack Quinn, used Denise Rich to circumvent
expected Justice Department resistance to pardoning a defiant
fugitive accused of the biggest tax rip-off in U.S. history.

Let me stipulate here that it is no sin to recommend mercy or point
out good deeds done by unpopular targets of prosecutors. I
regularly signed parole petitions for Nixon colleagues jailed after
Watergate. And when prosecutor Charles Hynes led a New York Bar
Association campaign to disbar a near-comatose Roy M. Cohn just
before he died of AIDS, I denounced the vengeful lawyers as a pack
of ghouls. I don't knock loyalty.

But at issue here is the ease with which an unpatriotic
wheeler-dealer can manipulate fine organizations and hungry
politicians here and abroad into expunging all unanswered charges
from his record.

Would we have known about the A.D.L. advice to Rich and
intercession on his behalf if Congress had not begun an
investigation? Unlikely; though he reported fully to some 40
members of the A.D.L. national executive committee on Feb. 3, for
six weeks after the pardon firestorm Foxman said nothing publicly.

Not until March 9, when the Burton committee contacted him, did
A.D.L. release its official letter to Clinton whining about "Marc
Rich's suffering." Only after cooperating with House investigators
did Foxman admit publicly that it was his suggestion in Paris that
led to the well-heeled Denise's exploitation of her access to
"Number One."

In a March 19 letter to national commission members, he explained
that his pardon request was partly "predicated on the fifteen years
I knew of Marc Rich's generous philanthropy and good deeds," but
lately "I began to question whether a person's good deeds should
overshadow other aspects of his behavior. In hindsight this case
probably should not have had my involvement as it was not directly
in ADL's clear- cut mission...."

That mission is to fight bigotry. The last time Foxman muddled it
was to write Clinton asking for Jonathan Pollard's release;
commission members privately slapped him down because that
prosecution had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, either.

The time is ripe for the A.D.L. - and other do-good and advocacy
groups, too - to take a hard look at the ulterior motives of their
money sources. It's time to set out written policies to resist
manipulation by rich sleazebags and to reprimand or fire staff
members who do not get with the ethical program.

Abe dropped by my office a few minutes ago to take back that unfair
telephone crack and answer questions about who sucked him into this
mess, which takes some zip out of my conclusion. We wished each
other a happy Passover.

(c) 2001 New York Times