Controversy Versus Corruption

(Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Hillary Clinton speaks to the media at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on August 18.

This summer’s never-ending Democratic email disclosures have shed an increasingly unflattering light on the privileged relationship that big donors enjoy with Hillary Clinton and with party officials.

Major Clinton Foundation contributors sought and in some cases received expedited meetings with Clinton when she served as secretary of state, according to the latest batch of emails released by the conservative group Judicial Watch. The July WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee emails also detailed the special rewards, such as VIP roundtables and receptions, that party officials showered on top-tier contributors.

The disclosures have been jarring on several fronts. The DNC emails enraged backers of Bernie Sanders not only because they revealed how top party officials sought to sabotage his primary challenge to Clinton, but because of the ugly glimpse of the perks offered to wealthy donors. Clinton’s claim that she wants to fight inequality and help working Americans clashes with her close ties to deep-pocketed CEOs and Wall Street billionaires.

Clinton’s pledges to overhaul the campaign finance system, which watchdogs have urged her to spotlight as an antidote to her unpopularity, also are undercut by the email and Clinton Foundation controversies. Yes, Bill Clinton has said that if Clinton becomes president the foundation will no longer accept foreign or corporate contributions, and that he will step down from its board. But these moves come too late and do not go far enough. Politicians should simply not be in the business of raising money for nonprofits, which operate outside both campaign-finance limits and disclosure rules. If the Clintons want the good work of their foundation to continue, they should turn it over to trusted allies and immediately sever ties with the organization.

Nevertheless, recent Democratic email dumps may be as noteworthy for what’s missing from them as for what they reveal. Amid 20,000 DNC emails released by WikiLeaks, not a single one produced anything that could be called a smoking gun. Party aides debated which donor to seat next to President Obama, for example. But the emails also revealed that donors often didn’t get what they asked for. A Chicago financial services executive who sought to connect a client with an administration official with “clout” was referred to former Minneapolis Mayor and Democratic official R.T. Ryback, who told The New York Times that the request was never made, but that “if it had been, I would not have made such a call.”

More damning are the revelations that Clinton as secretary of state met with dozens of non-government individuals who had made six- and seven-figure contributions to the Clinton Foundation. An AP investigation pointed to 85 people who met with Clinton and who collectively gave $156 million to the foundation, either individually or through companies and groups. Hamad al-Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, was initially put off but granted a meeting within days of forwarding his request via then-Clinton Foundation official Doug Band.

“These new emails confirm that Hillary Clinton abused her office by selling favors to Clinton Foundation donors,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a statement. Donald Trump has dubbed the Clinton Foundation a “pay-for-play” operation, called for it to shut down, and said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate it.

These claims of corruption, however, have yet to be substantiated—despite microscopic scrutiny by the throngs of journalists, watchdogs, and political opponents poring over more than 30,000 Clinton emails. While the Kingdom of Bahrain did reportedly give $50,000 to $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, the Crown Prince would likely have obtained a meeting with Clinton regardless—as would such foundation donors as rock star Bono and philanthropist Melinda Gates.

Clinton aide Huma Abedin made a point of setting up Clinton’s meeting with the Crown Prince through official channels, not via foundation officials. And, not unlike DNC donors, Clinton Foundation contributors often walked away unsatisfied. When Band asked for help obtaining a visa for a British soccer player who had a criminal past, Abedin’s response was that it made her “nervous to get involved,” to which Band replied, “Then don’t.” The visa was not granted, nor was Bono’s request for help streaming a U2 concert through the International Space Station.

“I know there’s a lot of smoke, and there’s no fire,” Clinton herself told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

None of this excuses Clinton’s ill-advised failure to erect a more rigid firewall between her official duties as secretary of state and her family’s foundation, or her mistaken involvement in the foundation to begin with. When Clinton became secretary of state, the foundation explicitly agreed with the Obama administration to seek approval from State Department ethics officials before taking any new donations from foreign governments—then repeatedly broke that pledge. Foundation donors may not have received explicit favors from Clinton, but they arguably received special access, creating the clear appearance of a conflict of interest.

Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein may be wrong to call the foundation disclosures a “national scandal,” but she is right that philanthropy and government don’t mix. As Stein said in a National Press Club speech this week, “We should not be in the business of mingling the private business of a personal, nonprofit foundation, with our government, and allowing the biggest and wealthiest individuals to have influence over our government.”

This caution applies not just to Clinton but to Donald Trump, who runs his own foundation, and to the many politicians on both sides of the aisle who have courted controversy by raising big, undisclosed contributions for their personal nonprofits. These include Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential hopeful, who raised large corporate donations for a Florida education nonprofit, and who was one of more than a half-dozen Republican White House candidates involved this year in secretive charitable fundraising.

It should come as no surprise that the right-leaning Judicial Watch has taken zero interest in the Trump Foundation, or in any of the controversies surrounding GOP-linked philanthropies. More noteworthy is that Republicans, the longtime champions of deregulation, have developed a newfound interest in ethics now that Clinton is involved.

Republicans cheered when the Supreme Court found in Citizens United v. FEC that “ingratiation and access” are not corruption, and when Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that former GOP Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell should not be charged with corruption because “setting up a meeting, hosting an event or calling an official (or agreeing to do so) merely to talk about a research study or to gather additional information” does not constitute an “official act” that could violate the law.

All that helps explain why Clinton casts GOP attacks as purely partisan. Clinton is finding it harder to explain, however, why the line between the business and interests of the Clinton Foundation and its donors, and her work as secretary of state, became so hazy. Both Clinton and Democratic Party officials are bracing themselves for the next round of email disclosures. The appearance of a conflict of interest has thrown Democrats and their standard-bearer on the defensive—despite scant evidence thus far that any laws have been broken.

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