The Mighty Quinn: Fixer In A Fix
Last August, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Jack Quinn was feeling on top of his game. He had punched all the right tickets in his 33 years in Washington: congressional aide, campaign manager, law firm partner, chief of staff to Vice-President Al Gore, and finally White House legal counsel to President Bill Clinton. Now he had his own lobbying and strategic advice firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates, with 25 employees and billings last year of about $8 million. And he was much in demand--not only as one of Al Gore's top strategists but also as a Washington power player who could resolve complex legislative and regulatory issues for such clients as Viacom, Cisco, DaimlerChrysler, and BET Holdings.
But there was one unfinished piece of business from his previous position at law firm Arnold & Porter that Quinn wanted to wrap up. He had become consumed by the case of Marc Rich, the commodities trader who fled the country 17 years ago rather than stand trial on 65 counts of tax evasion, racketeering, and trading with the enemy. Rich had hired Quinn a year earlier and convinced him that he had been wrongly accused and would not receive a fair trial if he returned. After the election, Quinn told Rich, he would ask Clinton for a pardon. If successful, Quinn might join the ranks of such legendary fixers as Edward Bennett Williams, who also had represented Rich.
Clinton granted the request on Jan. 20, just hours before leaving office. But instead of relishing his triumph, Quinn is in the middle of his worst nightmare. Loyal Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), have denounced the pardon. Clinton-appointed law enforcement officials who had rejected previous Rich offers--large penalties in return for no jail time--are outraged. Legal experts on Bush's staff even explored how they might undo the pardon until the Prez waved them off.
"I'M SICKENED." Now, Quinn, 51, and his controversial tactics have become as much a part of the story as Rich himself. Instead of cementing his image as a fixer, Quinn, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is fighting to salvage his reputation and save his year-old firm from the firestorm's backdraft. "I'm sickened," says Democratic Party senior statesman Bob Strauss. "I've never seen an act that breeds cynicism to beat this. It hurt [Clinton] terribly, and it hurt the Democrats to some extent."
Accusing Quinn of damaging his party and his President is the ultimate insult to someone who specializes in protecting politicians' backs. Quinn started early. While an undergrad and law student at Georgetown University from 1967 to 1975, the Brooklyn-born Quinn worked as a Democratic National Committee staffer and as a low-level aide to various congressional panels, then to Senator Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.). He took to politics like a duck to the Potomac. By the time he was 26, he was directing Democratic Senator Mo Udall's Presidential campaign.
For the next 17 years, Quinn used Arnold & Porter as his power base, picking up numerous corporate clients. But his first love was advising Democratic Presidential wannabes--Colorado Senator Gary Hart in 1984 and Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey in 1992. Quinn's big break came when he signed on with Gore's first Presidential run in 1988. The two grew close, especially as Quinn became more comfortable dispensing advice, and Gore learned to rely on the soft-spoken but sharp-elbowed Quinn for everything from positioning on issues to debating style.
When the Clinton-Gore team won in '92, Gore named Quinn his counsel and, six months later, chief of staff. In 1995, Clinton needed a legal counsel, and Quinn got the job. His four years at the White House were stormy as Quinn manned the battle stations during one probe after another: Travelgate, Filegate, and Whitewater. A former colleague sums up his method this way: "Jack always took the hard line. No cooperation, no documents, no nothing."
That confrontational attitude often got him into hot water on the Hill. In one inquiry into a White House database that Hill Republicans alleged was improperly used for political purposes, the Government Reform & Oversight Committee accused Quinn of "knowingly and willfully obstructing this committee by withholding documents." The same panel, chaired by the hyper-partisan Dan Burton (R-Ind.), has set a hearing on the Rich pardon for Feb. 8. The Senate Judiciary Committee also plans a probe.
GOP lawmakers are looking into what current and former prosecutors believe was a deliberate strategy to seek a pardon at the last minute to reduce the chance of Justice Dept. interference. No one feels more burned than Morris Weinberg Jr., the prosecutor who brought the 1983 case. "It smells so bad," says Weinberg, a lifelong Democrat. "If the Department of Justice, me, or the U.S. Attorney had a chance to make a case, it would have taken about a minute to convince President Clinton he couldn't pardon [Rich]."
Through a spokesman, Quinn denies that he bypassed Justice. He points to a Nov. 21 conversation with Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder to alert him of the pardon plan. He did not, however, tell Holder that the pardon petition would go directly to the White House and not through Justice's pardon attorney, as do the vast majority of pardon requests. Quinn also says he sent Holder a copy of a Jan. 10 letter to Clinton in which Quinn formally sought a pardon. The letter, however, went astray because it was sent to a commercial building in which some Justice offices are housed, though not Holder's. Because of that, Justice officials did not receive the notice until Jan. 17--two days before Clinton issued the pardon.
To support the pardon petition, Rich's charitable foundation collected dozens of letters testifying to his generosity, mainly in Israel. Some of the letter-writers were not told about the pardon effort, but Quinn says that was not his doing. And while on the President's final trip to Northern Ireland, Quinn pressed Clinton consigliere Bruce Lindsey to review the Rich application, which had arrived at the Oval Office two days earlier. Upon returning to Washington, a skeptical Lindsey talked with a handful of advisers--but not to U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, whose office brought the case.
Besides looking at the chummy conversations, the congressional panels will be examining the role of campaign contributions. Rich's ex-wife, Denise, has given the Clintons and the Democratic Party more than $1 million since 1992. She ingratiated herself with Clinton by hosting a fund-raiser in her Fifth Avenue penthouse at one of his lowest periods--just days after Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr issued his devastating Monica Lewinsky report. More recently, she gave the Clintons $7,250 worth of furniture for their new homes, and $72,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign. Quinn denies the contributions played any role in the pardon. Yet Quinn personally asked Denise Rich to write and phone the President in support of the pardon.
Some of Quinn's ex-colleagues say they're not surprised by his handling of the pardon. "It's classic Jack," says one. "He's extremely political, and he's ruthless." And, at least for a moment, he was the Washington fixer with the most juice. For a fee of about $300,000, Quinn did what a string of high-priced lawyers, including former Nixon counsel Leonard Garment and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief-of-staff, tried but failed to do. But Jack Quinn may have trouble mustering much enthusiasm when he says: "Welcome home, Mr. Rich."