Billionaire Marc Rich, the trader who was controversially pardoned by former US president Bill Clinton, died today at 78. Rich, the founder of the Swiss-based trading firm Glencore, invented the role of swashbuckling commodities trader and went on to renounce his US citizenship rather than pay his taxes and face the courts on other charges.
The Belgian-born Rich was an iconic figure who helped to break open the Soviet Union to trade, and flouted international sanctions against rogue nations. He earned a fortune by defying oil embargoes against Iran after the 1979 US hostage crisis, and South Africa at the height of apartheid.
Rich learned the basics of trading at Philipp Brothers, a metals house. He got his big break during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, in which he found ways to evade the OPEC ban on sales to the US, and get oil to US customers. On the basis of that triumph, he founded his own firm, calling it Marc Rich & Co., which became synonymous with buccaneering. When the UN slapped an embargo on South Africa, he sent Iranian oil there.
Not everyone was romanced by Rich’s style. By the 1980s, Rich had racked up $48 million in unpaid income taxes, along with pending criminal charges for his trading with Iran. He fled to Switzerland. From that base, he led a sumptuous life on his immense fortune.
But he had not lost his taste for deal-making. In the final years of the Soviet Union, he struck metals deals in Russia and Kazakhstan that made Rich even wealthier. All the while, he remained regularly on the FBI’s Top Ten Wanted list.
In 2001, then president Clinton pardoned him on his last day in office. He said that the charges were best adjudicated through civil procedure, not criminal law. Rich’s then wife, Denise Eisenberg, had made large donations to the Democratic party and Clinton’s library. Rich also managed to get then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to send Clinton a plea on his behalf.
It was Rich’s last great evasion.