Politics & Policy

The Clintons’ Suspect Foundation

Bill Clinton at a press conference in 2006. (Nicholas Roberts/Reuters)
Is it normal for foreign governments to underwrite a candidate’s charity?

Do you ever feel like all of Washington’s regulatory, ethics, and law-enforcement agencies looked at Bill and Hillary Clinton and shrugged, “Eh, they’re the Clintons, they’re going to get away with it anyway”?

Last week, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a close Clinton ally, caused a stir when he suggested that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, the Clinton Foundation — formally named the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation — would have to be disbanded.

“I know it’ll be hard for President [Bill] Clinton because he cares very deeply about what the foundation has done,” Rendell told the New York Daily News. “It’d be impossible to keep the foundation open without at least the appearance of a problem.”

The “appearance of a problem” to which Rendell refers is presumably the fact that foreign governments and foreign citizens could give unlimited amounts of money to the foundation, donations that would look like bribes to skeptical outside observers. The Clintons’ defenders quickly point out that Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea do not collect salaries from the foundation, and thus do not personally benefit from it. Except the foundation pays for the family’s travel expenses, as disclosed in the organization’s Form 990, filed with the Internal Revenue Service. That disclosure notes that the family “may require the need to travel by charter or in first class” because of “extraordinary security and other requirements.”

The Clintons get nothing from the foundation except free travel on chartered jets and first-class airline seats and hotel stays and, oh yes, control over a giant operating budget to steer to the charities and good causes that they prefer. Practically nothing!

In any case, within a few days Rendell had recanted, suggesting that a President Hillary Clinton would merely need to keep the Foundation at arm’s length during her term.

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“I think if the secretary becomes president, she obviously can have no further involvement with it, can’t ask for money for the foundation,” he said. “They may decide to let partners carry on the work for the next four to eight years.”

Perhaps the Clinton campaign called and griped. Or, perhaps, Rendell suddenly realized that if it is a conflict of interest for a U.S. president to have a foundation that accepts donations from foreign governments and foreign citizens, it is also a conflict of interest for a U.S. secretary of state to have a foundation that accepts donations from foreign governments and foreign citizens. There’s no way to put new limits on the Clinton Foundation’s voracious donation system without admitting the old ones were ethically insufficient.

There’s no way to put new limits on the Clinton Foundation’s voracious donation system without admitting the old ones were ethically insufficient.

No doubt the sprawling Clinton Foundation, enjoying hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and spending nearly $250 million in 2013 and 2014, does some good work around the world. Take, for example, the Full Participation project, “an initiative of the Clinton Foundation which aims to advance the full participation of girls and women around the world.” The project has worked to expand women’s access to contraception and education, increase their involvement in the workforce, and fight child marriage. 

But the Foundation’s commitment to women’s rights is odd, when you consider some of its biggest donors: From 2001 to 2014, Qatar gave between $1 million and $5 million, Kuwait gave between $5 million and $10 million, and Saudi Arabia gave between $10 million and $25 million. These governments are not exactly known for their equitable treatment of women. If they wanted to promote women’s rights, changing their own laws would do far more than their millions in donations ever will. And yet, something made them decide that donating to the Clinton Foundation was most worthwhile. Why is it unreasonable to suspect that these countries thought they were ingratiating themselves with a secretary of state who stood a good chance of becoming president in the near future?

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Before her confirmation as secretary of state, Clinton agreed that the Foundation would check with the State Department’s ethics office before accepting a donation from a foreign government that had not previously given to the group. In other words, one organization controlled by Bill Clinton had to get approval from another organization controlled by Hillary Clinton. Even this minimal rule was ignored: In 2010, the Clinton Foundation forgot to check on a $500,000 donation from the Algerian government.

#related#In early August, CNN reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation suspected criminal acts had been committed at the Clinton Foundation: “Three field offices were in agreement an investigation should be launched after the FBI received notification from a bank of suspicious activity from a foreigner who had donated to the Clinton Foundation.” But the Department of Justice ruled there was insufficient evidence to open a case.

So, to recap: Foreign governments and individuals give large amounts of cash to an account controlled by a secretary of state and likely future president, an arrangement that smells fishy to the FBI and looks corrupt to everyone not within the Clintons’ orbit, but the Department of Justice tells everyone not to worry.

Perhaps the Clinton Foundation’s next major project will be an initiative studying why so many Americans no longer trust their leaders.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.


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