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Globetrotting for Dollars

Will bagman Bill's ethically dubious ways enhance Hillary's installation at Foggy Bottom?

By 11.18.08

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Media reports Monday evening suggested that pending a vetting of her husband's business affairs, Hillary Clinton has been offered America's top diplomatic post by President-elect Barack Obama and that she is poised to accept.

If the reports are true, Obama must not be worried that former President Bill Clinton's freewheeling fundraising practices will come back to haunt the incoming administration.

The ethical concern is not that the former commander-in-chief is raising oodles of money to fight poverty, global warming, HIV/AIDS, and sugary soft drinks in elementary schools. More power to him.

The problem is that with Secretary of State Hillary off in the tension-filled Levant conjuring loaves, donors may give money to the William J. Clinton Foundation wanting something more than a discount at the Clinton Library gift shop. They may expect favors from a Clinton State Department or from others in the Obama administration.

Even if everything happening at the foundation is completely above board, there is the potential for the perception of corruption, as Deborah Corey and I noted in the February 2008 Foundation Watch.

This is because federal law does not require nonprofit charities -- including presidential foundations -- to disclose the identities of their contributors. Bill Clinton fiercely defended his legal right to keep donor names secret earlier this year and will probably do so again.

Typically presidential foundations support the unusual entity known as the presidential library. Presidential libraries have two parts: The library's document collections are maintained by the National Archives and are open to all researchers. But most tourists visit the library's exhibition halls, conference center and museum store, which are administered by the foundation. The National Archives pays to maintain the collection of documents and library salaries, while donors, including corporations and foreign governments, may give unlimited amounts of money -- even while a president is in office -- to the presidential library foundation.

Clinton's foundation runs the "Clinton Presidential Center" in Little Rock, Arkansas, which includes the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and the Clinton School of Public Service.

In the spring, Bill Clinton promised that if his wife became president he would, with the beginning of her presidency, disclose the names of future donors to his foundation. The issue receded to the background after it became clear that Hillary was going to lose the race for her party's presidential nomination.

With the possibility of her taking over from Condoleezza Rice, it's worth revisiting.

IT WOULD BE a gross understatement to say that Bill Clinton's handling of the issue of donor confidentiality at his foundation has been inconsistent.

At one time, plans called for the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, to feature a wall naming its major donors. The move was applauded as an effort to bring greater transparency to the $165 million project.

However, the wall was never built. President Clinton said his foundation didn't need to disclose its current and past donor identities because "A lot of people gave me money with the understanding that they could give anonymously." President Bush's father didn't see it that way. When it opened in 1997, the George (H.W.) Bush Presidential Library voluntarily disclosed the names of donors who gave amounts over $10,000. Only a few names were withheld at the request of individual donors.

Meanwhile, ABC News reported a year ago that infoUSA, a direct marketing data company founded by Vin Gupta, a friend and major donor to Bill Clinton, patron saint of donor privacy, was sold a partial list of donors to the Clinton Foundation.

Good government advocates and liberals alike were not amused.

"The fact that they've sold the list and then turned around and said that these names must be kept anonymous completely undercuts their argument," said Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money in politics.

Liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias of John Podesta's Center for American Progress believed the Clintons should have made public the names of foundation donors to avoid any appearance of impropriety. "The voters ought to have this information before the election, when it could still make a difference…We really ought to find out who his donors are before the nomination is settled," Yglesias wrote in an October 4, 2007, Los Angeles Times op-ed. "Because it's presumed that big-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation are gaining access to and some measure of influence with the foundation's top dog, is it such a stretch to think that might extend to his White House-seeking wife as well?"

Asked to comment on the foundation's policy at a presidential debate in September of last year, Senator Clinton punted. "Well, you'll have to ask them," she said, referring to Bill Clinton and his staff. In fact, the New York Times reported last December 20 that the foundation's first chief of staff, Karen Tramontano, has said Mrs. Clinton was deeply involved in deciding the foundation's organization and scope of work: "She had a lot of ideas. All the papers that went to him went to her."

WHO'S ON THE donor list? Billionaires, Saudi royalty, Arab businessmen, the king of Morocco, the governments of Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei, and Taiwan, and lots of Hollywood celebrities have donated to the Clinton Foundation. In 2004, the New York Sun reported on 57 donors who appear to have each given $1 million or more. The big donors included Gupta, former Mattel Inc. chairman Bill Rollnick, Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder Robert L. Johnson, and George Soros's friends insurance magnate Peter B. Lewis and shopping center developers Bren and Melvin Simon. The Soros Foundation, which is the European arm of Soros's Open Society Institute, also gave money, along with Denise Rich, ex-wife of Marc Rich, the fugitive whom Clinton granted a pardon hours before leaving office.

The New York Times revealed last year that in the closing years of the Clinton administration at least 97 donors donated or pledged a total of $69 million for the library. Although some of the $1 million donors were longstanding friends of the Clintons, others were pushing the Clinton administration for policy changes. Two donors pledged $1 million each while they or their companies were undergoing Justice Department probes.

Then there's also the case of Canadian mining magnate Frank Giustra, a partner-in-philanthropy with Bill Clinton, who gave $31.3 million to Clinton's charity following a visit the two made to Kazakhstan, which apparently helped Giustra seal a lucrative deal with that country's uranium monopoly, Kazatomprom. The suspect donation was made through Giustra's Radcliffe Foundation. Giustra also promised to give an additional $100 million to the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, which is a project of the Clinton Foundation. Giustra and Clinton deny any wrongdoing.

Predictably, as Hillary's potential nomination by Obama recently gained steam, the New York Observer's resident Clinton apologist Joe Conason wrote that concerns about Bill Clinton's philanthropic activities "seem slightly overblown." Conason notes correctly that Bill's financial data is provided on Hillary's publicly available Senate disclosure forms, but gets his facts wrong when he writes that the names of donors to the foundation haven't been concealed.

Will the mainstream media lazily follow Conason's lead and give Obama and the Clintons a pass on this issue too?

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About the Author

Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist at a conservative watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Vadum is also author of Subversion Inc: How Obama's ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers.