Commentary Magazine


Topic: Clinton Foundation

Call Clinton Foundation Action What It Was: Corruption

So, it’s now become clear that the Clinton Foundation violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration, which had been drawn up to avoid conflicts of interest when President Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state. Because the Clinton Foundation often received donations from foreign states and Hillary Clinton didn’t want her tenure in Foggy Bottom to drain the Foundation of the funds upon which it came to rely, Obama administration lawyers hashed out an agreement in which foreign states could donate, but only if they had donated before and only if they did not provide additional money beyond what had been their previous practice.

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So, it’s now become clear that the Clinton Foundation violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration, which had been drawn up to avoid conflicts of interest when President Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state. Because the Clinton Foundation often received donations from foreign states and Hillary Clinton didn’t want her tenure in Foggy Bottom to drain the Foundation of the funds upon which it came to rely, Obama administration lawyers hashed out an agreement in which foreign states could donate, but only if they had donated before and only if they did not provide additional money beyond what had been their previous practice.

In 2010, however, the Algerian government, through its embassy in Washington D.C., allegedly gave the Clinton Foundation $500,000 in theory to support earthquake relief in Haiti. Now, the Haitian earthquake was devastating, and Algeria doesn’t have an embassy in Port-au-Prince and so on the surface, a donation is plausible.

But to believe that Algeria chose the Clinton Foundation randomly or because it was best positioned to work in Haiti beggars belief. After all, the Clinton Foundation does not appear to specialize in emergency relief. Its Haiti program page charts activity dating back only to 2010, the year of the Algerian donation. Most countries seeking to donate to Haitian earthquake relief might simply have answered the United Nations’ emergency call for assistance. There was also the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund stood up specifically for the purpose of Haiti earthquake relief and, with its mission completed, now folded.

Now, Algeria is a problematic regime at best. Through the Cold War, it was firmly in the Soviet camp. It has waged proxy war against Morocco, one of the most pro-Western, moderate Arab countries and continues to sponsor the totalitarian Polisario Front. To believe that its aims were humanitarian are belied by its persistent theft—according to Europe’s anti-fraud office—of humanitarian assistance donated by the European Union for the use of refugees in its remote Tindouf province. Rather, it seems that Algiers simply sought to influence the secretary of state with a back-channel donation. Now, let’s assume the Clinton Foundation passed money forward on earthquake relief, but the Foundation is famous for its high overhead, that is, support for the Clintons’ luxurious travel preferences, so a significant portion of the Algerian donation likely never made it to the Haitians in need. And let’s assume that Clinton was simply open to her Foundation taking money from everyone without enabling those donations to influence her decisions. The appearance of corruption is unavoidable.

Now, many states in the Middle East are woefully corrupt. Often, this corruption occurs because of a lack of legal framework defining what would ordinarily be a conflict of interest. There’s the problem of first sons, for example, with Middle Eastern leaders—Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, among others—each engaging in business with their sons acting as business agents. In the United States, we call it corruption, a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the law. It’s a type of business practice with which Algerians are both aware and comfortable. And in Hillary Clinton they seem to have believed they found a kindred spirit. Now, this doesn’t mean Clinton violated the law, but a competent secretary of state understands perception is often more important than reality. Her actions and those of her Foundation have at the very least undercut the ability of future American governments to make serious efforts to undercut corruption abroad, for Algerians and others will simply call American officials hypocritical given Clinton’s favorite charity and namesake accepting the cash. Hillary Clinton can plead that no corruption occurred—perhaps it depends what the meaning of “is” is—but the rest of the world simply won’t buy the spin. Judgment matters.

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Clintons’ Qatari Cash Should End Democrats’ Koch Attacks

When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.

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When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.

The first two stories were from the Wall Street Journal, showing the Clinton Foundation was raking in donations from foreign governments as Hillary’s candidacy gets underway and also that Hillary had promoted as secretary of state companies that donated to the foundation. The latest such story is from Politico, and it details the problematic role that Bill Clinton has played in all this.

The story concerns the “big-money” speeches Clinton gave while his wife was secretary of state. He was required to get approval from his wife’s State Department in case there were any ethical gray areas and, wouldn’t you know it, he almost always got them.

There are two separate issues. The first is influence peddling:

The records also highlight a blind spot in the ethics deal the Clintons and the Obama transition team hammered out in 2008 with the involvement of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: While the pact subjected Bill Clinton’s moneymaking activities to official review, it imposed no vetting on donations to the Clinton Foundation by individuals or private companies in the U.S. or abroad.

Concerns about individuals seeking influence by dropping money in both buckets arose soon after the first few Bill Clinton speech proposals landed at Foggy Bottom. In a 2009 memo greenlighting those talks, a State Department ethics official specifically asked about possible links between President Clinton’s speaking engagements and donations to the Clinton Foundation. However, the released documents show no evidence that the question was addressed.

That phrase, “imposed no vetting,” is essential to the Clintons’ scheme. A donation to the Clinton Foundation is not instead of a donation to Bill or Hillary; it’s just a way to hide the details of a donation to Bill or Hillary.

And that’s related to the second issue: transparency. The Clintons were only technically vetting money given directly to Bill under this State Department setup. And yet, even those records are incomplete:

Doubts also remain about the transparency of the ethics deal. Obtaining details on how the approval process played out in practice has been difficult and slow. For nearly three years after POLITICO filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in late 2009, the State Department released no information.

Heavily redacted documents began to emerge only after the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in 2013. So far, the department has not committed to a date to produce all of the records.

And, further:

How thoroughly State Department ethics officers vetted the requests remains unclear because of document redactions.

Some show lawyers there searching the Internet for information on the people or entities involved. One speech request generated a query to the acting chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, but the details of the exchange were redacted in the released documents.

Painter said that if the State Department did not know in advance about the specific fees involved for speeches or consulting deals, it would be difficult to judge whether sponsors were overpaying for Bill Clinton’s services.

“That would be a gap if they didn’t find out at all,” the ethics lawyer said.

Now, to suggest that this is solely a Bill Clinton problem for Hillary is not quite right. After all, the foundation was in his name while she was secretary of state and yet companies she would champion as the nation’s chief diplomat were plunking money into the foundation. The foundation also had a self-imposed ban on foreign-government contributions while she was at Foggy Bottom but the “ban wasn’t absolute,” so it wasn’t much of a “ban.”

When Hillary left the State Department, her name was added to the foundation and it resumed accepting the foreign money, eschewing even basic subtlety. So it’s not just about Bill; Hillary has been quite active in passing the hat herself once she turned toward running for president.

Now that there have been calls from both Republicans and Democrats to rein in the sleaze, the Clintons are contemplating going back to the old system. But that old system is the one with horrendous transparency, obvious ethical problems, and the appearance of impropriety at all times.

One thing is for certain: with the Clintons raking in the cash from foreign governments in anticipation of her candidacy, every single Democrat’s accusation of “dark money” and “Koch brothers cash” levied at Republicans should be ignored, without exception. As Kim Strassel wrote, the Clinton Foundation is essentially a super-PAC. And the candidate accepting contributions from Qatar and Saudi Arabia is in no position to lecture anyone on influence peddling and American democracy.

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Same Old Clintons Back at Work

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.

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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.

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