First Look

Clinton charity has top-notch finances, watchdog group says

Charity Navigator has given the Clinton Foundation its highest rating, following criticism that foundation donors may have received special treatment from the former secretary of State.

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    Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton addresses the National Convention of the American Legion in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., on Aug. 31, 2016.
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A charity watchdog group gave the Clinton Foundation a top rating on Thursday, after Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid renewed public interest – and scrutiny – in the nonprofit.

Charity Navigator, an organization which evaluates charities to help inform donor decisions, has given the Clinton Foundation four out of four stars for financial health and accountability. The watchdog has been involved with Foundation initiatives, but has maintained that the report is unbiased.

The rating follows criticism from Donald Trump and other Clinton detractors, as well as some usual supporters, who argue that foundation donors may have received special treatment from the former secretary of State, and that the Clintons should shut down the charity, or cease their involvement, if she is elected president. 

Charity Navigator utilizes a fixed algorithm, which considers factors such as financial health and transparency, to produce its ratings. In 2007, the watchdog awarded the Clinton Foundation four stars. But in 2012, after Charity Navigator changed its methodology, it downgraded the rating to three stars, since it calls for organizations to have five independent board members, and the foundation had only three at the time. In 2014, it stopped rating the foundation altogether, citing changes in business structure that were incompatible with its algorithm.

For a time in 2015, the foundation was also on Charity Naviagor's watchlist, citing concerns about donations from foreign governments, which had been barred while Clinton was secretary of State. During her presidential campaign, the foundation has stopped donations from most, but not all, foreign countries. 

But after Clinton’s presidential bid created “unprecedented demand” for a rating, Charity Navigator used consolidated tax forms to reevaluate the Clinton Foundation, Charity Navigator president Michael Thatcher told the AP. The nonprofit scored 94.74 out of 100, with minor deductions for its donor privacy policy and its process for determining the chief executive's salary.

Charity Navigator itself participated in some foundation initiatives, committing $2 million to expanding and strengthening its own ratings. The foundation waived a $20,000 member fee, as it does for other nonprofits. 

Unlike many charitable organizations, the Clinton Foundation carries out most of its own projects, rather than donating money to other groups: In 2014, for example, the group gave just 3 percent of its revenue to other nonprofits, CNN reports. The nonprofit has been lauded for tackling issues too fragile or dangerous for other charities – for example, broadening access to HIV treatment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also tackles a variety of other global issues, bringing government and private leaders together to make progress on climate change, economic development, and other global health issues. 

But after the leak of internal emails, the foundation has been viewed with heightened scrutiny. Those messages showed that, during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State, foundation executives had contacted Clinton aides seeking access for donors. Many of those requests were not successful, and those that were tended to involve donors who would have also had access to Clinton through normal political channels.

But while these communications didn't violate the letter of the law, some feel they violated the spirit of the Clinton's pledge to keep State affairs separate from the charity. 

"Whether she or her aides have violated the spirit of the pledge … yeah, of course they have," Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, told Politico. "The notion of continuing contact between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department – that was not supposed to happen."

Others argue that such ties are inevitable and ubiquitous in Washington – but that Clinton should step away from the foundation, regardless.

"Those of us who know and are frustrated about the way our government works breathe a collective yawn at the unsurprising news that the Clinton Foundation or some other nonprofit also gets what appears to be favorable treatment by a government agency," Richard W. Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. "Lots of people and groups get favorable treatment, and most of these are interested in making money rather than giving it away."

But in order to win the election, and govern afterward, "the answer is obvious," he wrote. "The family should promise now that if Hillary is elected president, all of the Clinton family members will step down from all positions with the foundation and they will not return."

The Clintons have said they will step away in the event of a November victory, although their daughter Chelsea would remain. When Clinton announced her candidacy, she said the foundation would stop accepting donations from most foreign governments, making exceptions for Australia, Canada, and a handful of Western European countries. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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