Beg Your Pardon: Presidential Reprieves and Southampton Bath & Tennis

Pardon Me Blago Trump cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Surely among the most controversial of all the folks who Donald Trump has pardoned or granted other forgiveness is former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, whose sentence Trump commuted several weeks ago, and who was a contestant on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice game show some years ago. Trump apparently took a liking to him. Blago is hard not to like, with the twinkle in his eye, his boyish good looks, the swirling bush of hair and his “I’m innocent” demeanor. All he did, besides a few financial improprieties, was say he wanted to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat for something like $1.5 million.

He didn’t actually do it, probably because he was so public about wanting to do it, nobody would step forward and give him the money. He was eventually sentenced to 14 years in the slammer for a number of things, which seems like a lot. Lots of people say they want to do bad things but don’t actually do them. Anyway, Trump did fire him after four episodes.

Pardoning friends is a rather slimy perk presidents get to do all the time, usually at the end of their terms. Controversy swirls, then fades.

The last pardon that got this much attention was the one given to Wall Street’s Marc Rich in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Rich was a commodities trader, hedge fund manager and financier who made billions but then got indicted for racketeering, wire fraud, trading with the enemy (Iran) and evading $48 million in taxes. He fled to Switzerland rather than stand trial and, as the feds couldn’t get him extradited, lived in great style for over 20 years. He was #6 on the FBI Most Wanted List when he got pardoned.

At the time, Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with Denise Rich, his ex-wife, lived in the Hamptons in the summertime. That might have had something to do with it. Ms. Rich campaigned hard for her ex.

Leading up to the pardon, Denise Rich also bought and nearly closed the Southampton Bath & Tennis Club on Gin Lane. It’s quite a story.

The Southampton Bath & Tennis Club was, at that time, the private beach club on the ocean for people who were not welcome to become members at the prestigious and very WASPY Southampton Bathing Association. Dues were not high at Bath & Tennis. Members included many merchants in that town, along with various local real estate developers and professional people. The club was, and still is, a glorious Stanford White–designed three-story mansion on five acres with tennis courts, swimming pool and luncheon café overlooking the beach and ocean.

I often ate lunch there in those years, a guest of the president of the club, Wilbur Ross, who today is Trump’s Secretary of Commerce.

One day, shocking news went around the club that Marc Rich’s ex-wife had bought the place (some people told me it was for a million dollars) and was planning to convert it into her private residence. In which case she would, of course, want the club closed.

It seemed nothing could be done. She’d gotten the deed. But then she let it be known, I was told, that if the club members would pony up $3 million, she would be willing to sell it back to the club and the club could continue. She and her lawyer would walk away with an easy profit.

Just before the members meeting at which it was decided to do that, Mr. Ross explained it to me.

“It’s called a flip,” he told me. “You buy something at a bargain price—in this case the old owner was having financial problems and wanted out—and then you scare everybody and walk away with two extra million in your pocket.”

Well, dues doubled or maybe tripled to make it happen, I was told, and the interesting thing was that after it happened, Denise Rich, a woman who had never been a member and no longer was the owner, was often seen at the club smiling and shaking hands with club members.

“Part of the deal,” Mr. Ross told me, “was that she get a membership for life. So people are congratulating her, probably wishing they had pulled off this flip instead of her.”

The moral is, it’s only money. Or it’s all about the money. Five years after this happened, Bill Clinton, perhaps persuaded by Southampton Bath & Tennis Club member Denise Rich, gave her ex-husband a pardon so he could come home.

As I recall, he never did. He seemed perfectly happy to stay living in Switzerland.

Interestingly, the current Governor of Illinois issued this comment about the Blago commutation:

“Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated.”

Notice he said this in the present tense. “No longer be tolerated” from now on.

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