Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder testifies at a Congressional hearing about Marc Rich's pardon. (2001 Reuters file photo)When Eric Holder appears before Congress next year, seeking confirmation as attorney general, lingering ghosts from his role in the Marc Rich pardon scandal could come back to haunt him.

As today’s New York Times details, while Holder was deputy attorney general, he was more deeply involved in Bill Clinton’s 2001 pardon of the fugitive billionaire than typically understood.

Rich fled the U.S. for Switzerland after facing indictment in 1983 on charges that he evaded taxes on tens of millions of dollars. At the time, it was the biggest tax fraud case in American history. Rich also was believed to be a middleman for several suspect oil deals involving Iraq and Iran.

Rich’s fugitive status made his pardon shocking, and Clinton has faced significant scrutiny for his decision. A Congressional committee and a grand jury investigated the pardon, though they found no criminal conduct. But stoking the claims of wrongdoing: Rich’s ex-wife, who lobbied heavily for his pardon, had made hefty donations to Clinton’s presidential library fund, Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and several other Democratic causes.

Bill Clinton has attempted to excuse the pardon by invoking Holder’s input in the decision. "It was my understanding that Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder's position on the pardon application was ‘neutral, leaning for,’" Clinton said in a 2001 op-ed in the Times, explaining why he decided to pardon Rich.

Holder himself acknowledged in congressional testimony that his handling of the Rich pardon was flawed.

But the House government reform committee’s 2001 investigation of the pardon and today’s story in the Times suggests that Holder’s role was not what either Clinton or Holder have acknowledged:  

He let himself be drawn into the case by politically influential advocates, the review of the case shows, bypassing the usual Justice Department channels for reviewing pardon applications and infuriating prosecutors in New York who had brought the initial charges against Mr. Rich.

And Holder’s input helped ensure that Clinton signed the pardon despite objections from other senior staff members, the Times said.

Holder’s role in the Rich issue began more than two years before the pardon.

At a corporate dinner in November 1998, Mr. Holder was seated at a table with a public-relations executive named Gershon Kekst, who had been trying to help Mr. Rich resolve his legal troubles.

When Mr. Kekst learned that his dinner companion was the deputy attorney general, he proceeded to bring up the case of an unnamed acquaintance who had been "improperly indicted by an overzealous prosecutor," according to the Congressional inquiry.

A person in that situation, Mr. Holder advised, should "hire a lawyer who knows the process, he comes to me, we work it out." Mr. Kekst wanted to know if Mr. Holder could suggest a lawyer. Mr. Holder pointed to a former White House counsel sitting nearby. "There’s Jack Quinn," he said. "He’s a perfect example."

Rich’s advisers eventually hired Quinn. (Lewis "Scooter" Libby also represented Rich from 1985 until the spring of 2000.)

At Quinn’s request, Holder first attempted to get the U.S. Attorney’s office to reconsider their case against Rich. Beginning in Oct. 1999, Holder had more than a half-dozen contacts with Rich’s lawyers to strategize, including phone calls, e-mail and memorandums, the Times said.

But federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York wouldn’t play ball with Rich’s attorneys as long as their client was a fugitive.

Holder called Quinn and told him that he believed that the refusal of the Southern District to meet with Rich’s lawyers was "ridiculous," according to notes by Quinn obtained by committee investigators as part of a three-volume report on Clinton’s pardons, entitled Justice Undone.  (Democrats on the committee disputed some of the report’s conclusions.)  

Without a legal settlement, Quinn directed his attention toward a pardon. Holder got involved again. Again, from the Times:

Most perplexing to Justice Department allies was that Mr. Holder, by his own admission, involved himself in the discussions without a full briefing from his own prosecutors about the facts of the case, according to an associate of Mr. Holder who spoke on condition of anonymity.

On Jan. 19, 2001, Mr. Quinn called Mr. Holder and let him know that the White House would be contacting him for his recommendation on the pardon, which he said was receiving "serious consideration." Mr. Holder told him that he did not have a personal problem with the pardon, and Mr. Quinn quickly passed on the gist of the conversation to the White House.

The congressional reform committee’s report concluded that Holder’s input that day had a "significant impact" on Clinton’s decision. The next day, Clinton signed the pardon.

The committee also accused Holder of having a conflict of interest:

Holder was seeking Jack Quinn’s support to be appointed as Attorney General in a potential Gore Administration, and this may have affected Holder’s judgment in the Rich matter. On several occasions, Holder sought out Quinn’s endorsement to be appointed as Attorney General if Al Gore were to win the November 2000 election. Quinn was a Gore confidant whose endorsement would carry great weight.

In the aftermath of the pardon, Holder congratulated Quinn for doing "a very good job," Quinn told the committee.

Holder has rebuked any suggestion of wrongdoing, though he has expressed regret for his handling of the pardon.

The Times also points out Holder was "not the sinister deal maker that his critics made him out to be": 

Mr. Holder told Congressional investigators that he assumed the pardon was going to be rejected and that his comments were not intended to push it through. "I was ‘neutral’ because I didn’t have a basis to make a determination," he testified.

A longtime prosecutor and a former judge, Mr. Holder remains a popular figure at the Justice Department eight years after he left, and his supporters insist he was made the "fall guy" for a controversy mainly of Mr. Clinton’s making.

As the Times notes, Holder had an otherwise spotless record in the Justice Department.

But still expect him to face scrutiny from Congressional Republicans next year.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told the Times that Mr. Holder’s role in the Rich pardon would be "a big question" at his Senate confirmation hearing.