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Jared Hunt: Pardoned financier dies at 78

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A painful chapter in local labor history came back to mind Wednesday when news spread that billionaire "King of Commodities" Marc Rich had died.

According to wire reports, Rich died of a stroke at a Swiss hospital Wednesday morning. He was 78 years old.

Many people remember Rich, who created Glencore global commodities empire, as the fugitive financier pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001 during the final hours of his term.

But in Ravenswood, he's known for his behind-the-scenes role in the "Battle of Fort RAC."

That's how United Steelworkers members refer to the bitter 20-month lockout of 1,700 union workers by the Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. that occurred from the fall of 1990 through the summer of 1992.

Rich, through his international companies, had an ownership stake in RAC, as it was known. The company was created after Kaiser Aluminum sold its stake in the Ravenswood plant in 1989.

By the time RAC was created, Rich had already landed himself on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

Rather than face prosecution on a 1983 indictment on charges of tax evasion and illegal arms dealings with Iran - an indictment secured by former U.S. Attorney and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani - Rich opted to live in exile in Switzerland after that country's government denied a U.S. extradition request.  

When RAC decided to lock out its 1,700 union workers in October 1990, the United Steelworkers union accused Rich of pulling the strings.

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Members flew to Zug, Switzerland to lead protests outside Rich's office. They also used the Rich controversy to dissuade customers from buying aluminum from RAC, which was operating with non-union replacement workers.

The union workers eventually prevailed. They got their jobs back, and Rich sold his interest in the company, which was restructured into Century Aluminum. It still owns the shuttered smelter at the Ravenswood site.

Although the battle was won, union workers held fast to their animosity of Rich.

When Clinton ended up pardoning him, people took it as a "slap in the face."

"I just can't believe Bill Clinton would do something like that," Jerry Schoonover, then-president of USW Local 5668 told the Daily Mail's Chris Stirewalt in 2001.

Making matters worse were revelations that Rich's former wife, Denise, had given more than $200,000 to the Democratic Party in 2000 and also donated about $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library fund.

That created an appearance that Rich had given money as part of a quid-pro-quo for the pardon.  

"I figure it had to be for personal gain, because I just can't think of any other reason," Schoonover said at the time.

One footnote from the Clinton pardon: It was based in part on the recommendation of a deputy attorney general named Eric Holder. Holder, now U.S. attorney general, wrote in his final opinion that he was "neutral, leaning toward" a pardon.

However, during testimony months later at a congressional hearing looking into the pardon, Holder said if he had known all of the facts in the case, "I would not have recommended to the president that he grant the pardon."


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