Marc Rich Meets Che, Bribes Thugs, Regrets Nothing
Review by A. Craig Copetas The King of Oil
Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) — Long ago, in the courtrooms of ancient Athens, hubris was a crime and judges weren’t shy about convicting. Sometimes the penalty was left in the hands of a higher authority. “After hubris,” the saying went, “comes Nemesis,” the goddess of justice Zeus appointed to visit Earth in the form of a goose. Not even King Croesus was able to buy Nemesis off.
“The King of Oil,” by Daniel Ammann, is the mostly familiar tale of how the infamous American, Israeli and Spanish multibillionaire commodity trader Marc Rich — the inventor of the spot-oil market and for nearly two decades the most-wanted white-collar fugitive in America — did what Croesus could not and cooked the goose.
Ammann’s biography, written with Rich’s cooperation, is a briskly paced primer on how to get off the hook, a must-read for any businessman facing federal indictment and a guaranteed tear- jerker for the U.S. white-collar prison population.
We learn how Rich persuaded President Bill Clinton to pardon him on criminal charges that included 51 counts of fraud, racketeering, trading with the enemy during the Iranian hostage crisis and evading more than $48 million in income taxes stemming from a series of illegal crude-oil deals that roiled global markets in the early 1980s.
The lubricants, Ammann points out, were money and connections.
And that’s just the appetizer to a stomach-churning tale of avarice and woe. Ammann, business editor of the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche, mixes in all the usual suspects: duplicitous Washington politicians; Hollywood hustlers; Israeli spies; apartheid boosters; assorted African despots; bounty hunters and a U.S. marshal known as the Riddler.
Che Guevara, whom Rich recalls as “energetic and lively,” makes a cameo appearance.
Rich realized early in his career that serving cash instead of cocktails was the best way to mollify a Marxist, a mullah or the Mossad. “Eats first, morals after” was Bertolt Brecht’s escape clause. Does “The King of Oil” do anything to change the “Threepenny Opera” tune?
“‘I was painted as the biggest devil,’ Rich said to me without the least bit of self-pity,” Ammann writes from his 30- plus hours of exclusive interviews with Rich. “Those who are familiar with Rich’s matter-of-fact style know that he is not prone to exaggeration.”
“He may have his strengths,” Ammann continues, “but volubility is not one of them.” Neither is repentance.
“Whatever we did, we did legally,” Rich says. “We were doing business with Iran, Cuba, and South Africa as a Swiss company. These businesses were completely legal according to Swiss law.”
Rich tells Ammann it’s “naive” for anyone to think otherwise and that he has “no, no” remorse for brokering deals with thugs and rogues sweetened with multimillion-dollar bribes.
“Marc Rich + Co. would never have been able to make the trades it actually completed if it had not paid bribes — really big bribes,” Ammann writes with Rich’s blessing.
“Rich does not deny that he had authorized them in the past,” Ammann says. “‘The bribes were paid in order to be able to do the business at the same price as other people were willing to do the business,’” is how Rich rationalizes the cash incentives (code-named “chocolates”) he passed out to businessmen and politicians throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Ammann also gets Rich to fess up that he paid his ex-wife Denise $365 million to complete their divorce in 1996. As for how much he paid to split from his second wife Gisela in 2005, Rich says, “I don’t want to remember.”
Although much of “The King of Oil” echoes events previously chronicled elsewhere (including, I should mention, in my own 1985 book about Rich, “Metal Men”), Ammann’s adroit recasting confirms the profitable tragedy of Rich in the commodity trader’s own words.
Heart of Darkness
It’s a psychological thriller, each page percolating with the triumphant darkness that is Marc David Rich. There’s no time for melancholy in the soul of a character Ammann describes as the modern and laudable Dr. Faustus.
“Faust stands for the scientist who breaks conventions in order to discover ‘what holds the world together in its innermost,’” Ammann writes in defense of his subject. Rich “perfected trading methods precisely because he was willing to push the boundaries and break taboos. His power also came from trading with the ‘devils’ of the world.”
It’s the view Upton Sinclair would have focused on had “Oil!” been a billionaire’s take on the commodity business. “The King of Oil” is a gleeful celebration of asocial justice and why the sound application of money will always beat the odds and embarrass the gods.
“The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich” is published by St. Martin’s Press (302 pages, $26.99). To buy it in North America, click here.
(A. Craig Copetas is a senior writer at Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Mona Lisa’s Pajamas.” The opinions expressed are his own.)