NEW YORK — Marc Rich, a shrewd, swashbuckling oil trader who became a fugitive after being indicted on a charge of widespread tax evasion, illegally dealing with Iran, and other crimes, and who was later the subject of a much-criticized pardon by President Clinton during his last hours in office in 2001, died Wednesday in Lucerne, Switzerland. He was 78.
The cause was a stroke, his spokesman said.
A survivor of the holocaust, Mr. Rich became one of history’s most successful commodity traders, cornering the market for aluminum, silver, and zinc and helping create a spot market for oil outside the control of the international petroleum giants.
Nicknamed El Matador for his steel nerves and razor-sharp acumen, he pushed the limits of legality and, the government said, broke them. In 1983 he was indicted on 65 criminal counts that included tax fraud and trading with Iran when it was holding US hostages.
He paid the government around $200 million in civil penalties but fled to Switzerland to escape criminal prosecution. The IRS offered a $500,000 reward for his capture, and the FBI put him on its “most wanted” list along with Osama bin Laden. Even as he remained the world’s biggest trader of metals and minerals and lived in opulence, Mr. Rich was called the world’s most famous fugitive.
Then on Jan. 20, 2001, Clinton included Mr. Rich’s name on his list of pardons. It immediately became the most debated presidential pardon since President Ford pardoned Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Speculation about Clinton’s motivation was rampant.
It was soon learned that Mr. Rich’s former wife, Denise, had made large donations to the Democratic Party and the Clinton library and that top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak, had lobbied Clinton for the pardon. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the board chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, had also pressed Mr. Rich’s case, using official Holocaust Memorial stationery. So did King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
Eric H. Holder Jr., then the deputy attorney general and now the attorney general, advised the White House that he was “neutral leaning favorable” to the pardon. Only weeks later, Holder said he regretted the recommendation.
Clinton later quoted respected tax experts who concluded that no crime was committed and that the tax-reporting tactics of Mr. Rich and his corporation were reasonable. Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, expressed his gratitude to Mr. Rich for routinely allowing agents to use his offices around the world and financing airlifts of Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen, and other countries.
Mr. Rich never returned to the United States, nor did US agents succeed in several attempts to kidnap him. Forbes magazine estimated his worth at $2.5 billion.
Marcell David Reich was born in Antwerp, Belgium, where his father, David, eked outs living by peddling factory discards door to door. In the early 1940s, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Kansas City, Mo. They moved to New York in 1950.
Mr. Rich began his career as a metals trader in the early 1970s and gained prominence during the 1973-74 oil crisis when he circumvented the Arab oil embargo to sell oil to US companies in desperate need of supplies at increasingly high prices.
He continued to buy oil from Iran after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution despite US sanctions against the country. He remained unapologetic about his activities.
“They respected the contracts,” Mr. Rich told Daniel Ammann, a Swiss journalist, in 2009, in reference to Iran’s national oil company.
His clients also included the apartheid regime of South Africa and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Mr. Rich was similarly one of Israel’s most important oil suppliers for more than 20 years. By the end of his life, he held Israeli, Spanish, and Belgian citizenship.
After leaving the United States, Mr. Rich sold many of his domestic business interests.