The indictment of the Rich pardon centers on four complaints: that Rich was a fugitive, that he now has eluded justice, that Clinton and Rich's legal team circumvented the Justice Department's regular channels, and that Denise Rich's gifts either were de facto bribery or gave the appearance of same. Consider each count.
Fugitive status. Pardons for fugitives are rare, to be sure, but hardly unheard of. Both Presidents Wilson and Carter pardoned thousands of fugitive draft-dodgers. Indeed, pardoning a fugitive makes sense if the charges against him are misguided or unfair, or if the whole point is to cut short a legal proceeding that the President judges harmful to justice or to the national interest.
Evasion of justice. Rich now avoids criminal charges, which were brought against him under the racketeering laws (known as RICO). His attorneys' central contention, however, was that prosecutors had abused RICO by stretching it to cover offenses that are normally handled through civil proceedings, and that were in fact handled civilly for the other parties to the deals that got Rich indicted. In granting the pardon, Clinton specifically required Rich to waive any procedural defenses against civil action (such as those pertaining to statutes of limitations). So the government is now free to sue Rich all the way to Kingdom Come—just not to put him in prison. Since it is no secret that federal prosecutors—including Clinton's own Justice Department, in its lawsuit against Big Tobacco—have sometimes stretched RICO laws beyond all recognition, Rich's claim is not implausible on its face; and if the claim is fair, then Clinton's solution seems far from unreasonable.
Improper channels. Most pardons are vetted exhaustively by the Justice Department. This one wasn't, apart from a last-minute glance. Rich's attorneys took their pardon application straight to the White House—again, a procedure that is uncommon but not unheard of—and Clinton acted with little input from Justice. How bad is this? Not very. If you think that all pardons should be approved by the Justice Department, then you misunderstand what pardons are for, a point I'll come back to in a minute. If you think Clinton should at least have run the traps before deciding, that seems a fairly finicky objection, because Justice would have rejected the pardon peremptorily. ("Officials," explains The New York Times, "would not consider pardon petitions from ex-offenders until at least five years after serving their sentence.") Running the traps would merely have told Clinton what he already knew, which was that Rich's case was exceptional.
The money. The bribery theory seems far-fetched, if only because it is so entirely unnecessary to explain what happened. Did Denise Rich donate in exchange for a pardon—a federal crime, as she and Clinton would have known? Or did she get access to Clinton in exchange for her generosity? The latter, almost certainly. That is sleazy, but it is also routine in Washington, as well as being legal and inevitable. If you are shocked to learn that million-dollar donors get special attention from politicians, then I have some shares in the Grand Canyon to sell you. This is not to bless the money game, or to deny that Clinton was insensitive to appearances. After all, this is Mr. Lincoln Bedroom, the man who—oh, never mind. On the other hand, it would be perverse to demand that he or any President consider pardons only for people who were not supporters and never gave money, and inhuman to expect him to not be influenced by friendship.