The Meaning of “Passing Familiarity”

Eric Holder will be grilled at his confirmation hearing about his conduct in the Marc Rich affair. But the stickiest problem may be whether he lied in previous testimony to Congress on the matter. This report sets out the issue:

Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. told Congress under oath that he had “only a passing familiarity” with the criminal case against billionaire Marc Rich before President Clinton pardoned the fugitive financier in 2001- testimony that is now raising concerns among lawmakers reviewing Mr. Holder’s nomination.

But Holder had plenty of involvement with the Rich pardon request and, therefore, possessed more than “passing familiarity” with the matter. Indeed, he got a briefing on it — directly from Rich’s counsel:

Mr. Holder told the House committee in sworn testimony in February 2001 that he was not “intimately involved or overly interested” in the government’s $48 million fraud case against Mr. Rich, that the investigation “did not stand out as one that was particularly meritorious,” that he “never devoted a great deal of time to this matter” and that it “does not now stick in my memory.”

He also testified, according to a committee transcript, that he had “only a passing familiarity with the underlying facts” of the case and that after New York prosecutors refused his invitation to meet with Mr. Rich’s attorney, former Clinton White House Counsel Jack Quinn, he had “no reason to delve further into this matter.”

So central to the confirmation inquiry will be the very real question as to whether Holder accurately portrayed his behavior to Congress. The President-elect and his advisors have called the Rich pardon the “one mistake” in Holder’s career. But there were, if this information proves to be accurate, two errors: the underlying conduct – and his misleading testimony.

Lack of candor with Senators is the sort of thing that got Alberto Gonzales in hot water — and brought bipartisan calls for him to step down. Unless Holder and the Democrats can square the seemingly direct contradiction between Holder’s claim of “only a passing familiarity” with Rich and a record replete with talks between Holder and Quinn on the merits and progress of the pardon, there may be grounds on which to oppose his confirmation. Really, how can the Senate confirm a nominee for attorney general who lied to Congress?