WASHINGTON — In 1997, then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder supervised prosecutors and agents in one of the most sensitive cases any of them had ever encountered: investigating the campaign contributions of a sitting president and vice president.
Despite the political fallout for the Clinton administration, Holder never told the team to pull their punches, according to the prosecutor at the time.
Yet in his final weeks on the job, Holder signed off on President Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich — a decision that later caused many to question his independence.
"There are no ambiguities about how he reacted to an effort to politicize justice," said Stephen Gillers, an expert in legal ethics at New York University. "He failed."
Since Holder's nomination to be attorney general, a conflicting portrait has emerged, complicating what supporters initially believed would be a relatively smooth path to confirmation.
His supporters, including several prominent Republicans, say the Justice Department veteran has demonstrated the good judgment and impartiality needed to become the nation's top attorney.
Critics, however, say his role in the Rich pardon and other cases raise legitimate questions, especially considering that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned over allegations that he allowed politics to improperly influence him to fire nine U.S. attorneys. Gonzales aides have since been found by the Justice Department's watchdog to have illegally screened job applicants based on their political leanings.
In all likelihood, to secure confirmation after hearings that begin Thursday, Holder will have to elaborate on his role and maybe even apologize for it. At the time, he told Senators looking into the matter that he hadn't paid enough attention to it, adding, "there are things I wish I could have done differently."
Gillers, who called the handling of the pardon "a virulent contamination of the Justice system," said Holder has "gone part way toward acknowledging" his role.
"But it was a bigger mistake than he has so far acknowledged," he said. "If he doesn't recognize what he did was wrong — not questionable or regrettable — but wrong, then we've got the wrong guy to lead the Justice Department."
In congressional hearings, Holder described his position on the pardon as "neutral, leaning toward favorable," although Clinton at the time cited Holder's support of the pardon as important in helping him make the decision.
Holder also was criticized because leading up to the pardon he had discussed the case several times with Rich's attorney, Jack Quinn. Quinn said Holder, a former colleague, advised him to go straight to the White House rather than going through the department's pardon attorney.
Holder said he never intended for Quinn to circumvent the routine process even though the Justice Department's pardon attorney said he got word of the pardon the day Clinton granted it.
Quinn and Holder didn't return calls seeking comment.
Holder, who turns 58 next week, is expected to be questioned by Senate Republicans about his handling of other politically sensitive cases, including a report that he pressed employees to drop their opposition to the 1999 clemency of 16 prisoners convicted of crimes on behalf of a violent Puerto Rican nationalist group.
According to an account reported last week by The Los Angeles Times, Holder instructed his staff to replace the department's recommendation against commutations with one that supported clemency for at least half the prisoners.
When the pardon attorney at the time resisted, he was ordered to take a neutral position instead. The pardon attorney, Roger Adams, who's since left the Justice Department, confirmed the account to McClatchy.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, also questioned Holder's handling of the 1997 Clinton campaign finance investigation.
The matter erupted into controversy after then-Attorney General Janet Reno declined to follow the recommendation of prosecutor Charles La Bella that she appoint a special prosecutor.
La Bella said he didn't know what role Holder had in Reno's decision, but he never felt any pressure from him.
"He told us to do it on the merits, wherever the investigation leads us, we should follow it," La Bella said.
Specter, however, said he'd like to know more, given a prosecutor who replaced La Bella made the same recommendation that a special prosecutor be appointed.
"These matters require further questioning," Specter said during a lengthy speech on the Senate floor about his concerns, adding, "Mr. Holder appears to be serving the interest of his superiors" in the pardon and clemency cases.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a staunch advocate of Holder, predicted that Holder would get confirmed despite the criticism.
"I've had many Republicans come up to me on the floor and just tell me privately, 'Don't worry. We're going to vote for him'," said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, at a news conference.
Supporters point to Holder's handling of several high profile cases as proof of his ability to set aside political considerations, including his recommendation to Reno that she allow Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr expand his investigation of Clinton.
Even some former Justice Department officials who witnessed the controversies firsthand and disagreed with Holder's handling of them at the time say they support Holder's confirmation.
James Comey, the original prosecutor on the Rich case who later investigated the circumstances of the pardon, said in a letter to the Senate that he thought that Holder's role in the Rich pardon was "a huge misjudgment . . . one for which he has, appropriately, paid dearly in reputation. Yet I hope very much he is confirmed."
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