The process of preparing Hillary Clinton’s likely 2016 presidential candidacy is bringing some new scrutiny to an institution that has largely flown below the radar of the mainstream press in the last decade: the Clinton Foundation. Though it has garnered a lot of good publicity and huge corporate donations due to the visibility of the former president at its head, little is generally known about the philanthropy that has given a useful platform to Bill Clinton and his family since he exited the White House in January 2001. The governance of the foundation as well as questions about its practices and its incestuous ties with various corporations can’t be ignored any longer since Hillary Clinton is set to use it as a convenient landing spot while she prepares to run for president. It is in that context that a lengthy front-page feature in the New York Times today on the foundation should be read. While the article raises far more questions than it answers, it should remind Americans that the once and possibly future first couple of the land are the same characters that presided over a corrupt Little Rock governor’s mansion and a White House where ethical considerations were checked at the door.
The causes—health, AIDS, obesity and poverty—that the Foundation has funded are unexceptionable. But the team of old Clinton loyalists and faithful family retainers that has operated the global initiative has played fast and loose with its finances and management. More to the point, it’s hard to see where the foundation ends and the influence peddling begins. The story of its operations is also rife with conflicts of interest that have a familiar ring from those who remember the Clinton White House’s shameless fundraising record that had such trouble staying on the right side of the law. A major housecleaning now going on in order to try to sanitize the foundation for Hillary’s arrival and its renaming to include the former first lady and first daughter makes it clear that the foundation is going to have to be on its best behavior lest its hijinks sabotage their political ambitions.
Calling it the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation gives the operation a homier feel that suits both its philanthropic image as well as their desire to associate the likely 2016 presidential candidate and the family’s crown princess, who has political hopes of her own, with its good works. But suspicions about the way the foundation mixes charity with old-fashioned influence peddling won’t go away when Hillary and her staff (including their unofficial “adopted daughter” Huma Abedin) move into the operation’s New York headquarters.
The problem is not just that, as the Times details, Clintonistas like Ira Magaziner and Doug Band run a philanthropic endeavor with the kind of predilection for red ink that would do the federal government proud. It’s that the line between the good works and lucrative private capital ventures headed by many of the same people has been so blurred as to be largely indistinct. Teneo, a consulting and banking firm founded by Band (described by the Times as the president’s “surrogate son”) is also mixed up in the foundation’s business and largely profits from Clinton’s donors.
That may be par for the course in the world of high finance and do-gooding that the Clintons move in these days. But while it may have been considered a non-issue while the Foundation gave Bill something to do in his post-presidency, it will be a bigger deal as his wife uses it as a platform for her candidacy before she formally declares sometime in the next two years. That makes it imperative that the foundation not be a liability but also raises concerns about its use as political platform with tax-exempt status.
The foundation has been the perfect vehicle for the Clinton family as they cleaned up the former president’s image and kept their ties to former political donors and big business partners for future use. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion after reading about it in depth that it is just as much the function of the Clintons’ absent moral compass as their past political operations often were. As with the Clinton presidency, we are expected to let their stated good intentions wash away any doubts about their behavior or inattention to ethics. Let’s hope the press as well as responsible legal authorities keep a sharp eye on the foundation rather than let it play the same game as Hillary transitions to the next stage in her long slog to the top of the political heap.