Marc Rich trades nearly every plant, mineral and fuel that can be taken from the earth and turned into profit. He does it on such a grand scale that his trades actually affect how much Americans pay for a slice of bread or a light bulb. "Some say he is the greatest trader since Moses made a deal to part the Red Sea," says biographer A. Craig Copetas, a Wall Street Journal reporter. When Clinton pardoned Rich last month, it was yet another deal--a business problem that took 18 years for Rich to solve.
Before the pardon, Rich appeared to have it all--a mansion in a Swiss village, a global business and a helicopter to take him skiing where no lift could reach. But if he left Switzerland, Israel or Spain, he risked getting bounced to New York to face criminal tax-evasion charges from 1983. Bounty hunters and U.S. Marshals set traps for him, and Rich missed his father's funeral--and later his daughter's when she died of leukemia in 1996. That's why, for the two decades after he fled the U.S., Rich has been trying to buy his way back to respectability by stroking the interests of the Israelis, Swiss, Spaniards and Americans, cultivating relationships like roses in his garden. From his outpost in the Swiss town of Zug, he wired contributions around the world--to hospitals, opera houses and disaster-relief organizations--and slowly, the fugitive was camouflaged by all the pretty flowers. He donated an estimated $200 million to institutions in Israel and the Jewish diaspora. In 1995, according to a memo authored by one of Rich's lawyers and obtained by TIME, he offered to aid the peace process by helping finance a private investment bank with Jordan and the Palestinians--with the caveat that he would need to move freely throughout the region. Israel launched a "confidential initiative" to get the U.S. off Rich's back, according to the memo. Then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Dennis Ross, Clinton's Middle East envoy, to plead Rich's case, but Ross was unconvinced. Five years later, of course, Prime Minister Ehud Barak vouched for Rich again--this time directly to Clinton, with better results.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, Rich has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy through taxes and donations. "His donations are strategically focused," says Josef Lang, a Swiss historian and government official in Zug. "He knows exactly what segment of the population to attract: concerts and museums for educated, high-income people, the hockey club for 'popular' appeal." All the while, Switzerland refused to hand Rich over to the U.S. Says Hans Bachmann, the mayor of Meggen, where Rich lives: "He has not demanded any special treatment from local authorities, and we in turn do not talk about him."
Rich's empire has flourished because of his ability to operate below radar. But the pardon he wished for has magnified his every move, and the relationships he has nurtured have begun to sour. "A lot of people are distancing themselves from Rich," says Lang. Swiss officials are investigating whether Rich's company has complied with laws against money laundering. The longest trade of Rich's career may turn out to be the most foolish.
--By Amanda Ripley. Reported by Karen Nickel Anhalt/Meggen, Helena Bachmann/Geneva, Peter Mikelbank/Paris and Michael Weisskopf/Washington