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Briefing

Behind Clinton Foundation, the problem of money in US politics

Perhaps the most startling thing is that donors felt their money entitled them to access and accelerated consideration. That’s a window into the larger problem of money in politics.

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    Former US President Bill Clinton speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative's 2015 Winter Meeting in New York on Feb. 10, 2015.
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The Clinton Foundation has become a prickly issue for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. Newly released emails show that foundation donors asked Clinton aides for appointments, visas, and other favors while she served as secretary of State. What’s the story – is the foundation a “pay for play” ploy, or a noble endeavor?

What is the Clinton Foundation anyway?

The William J. Clinton Foundation was founded in 1997 and originally focused on raising money to build Bill Clinton’s presidential library. After the library construction phase, it morphed into a larger charitable organization that has collected upwards of $2 billion in donations from governments, corporations, and individuals around the world. It’s an operating foundation, meaning it has used most of that cash for its own efforts. Its areas of interest include economic development, climate change, health, and the empowerment of women, according to its website.

Some of its biggest programs have spun off into separate entities. Its large effort to increase poor nations’ access to HIV drugs became the Clinton Health Access Initiative in 2010. The Clinton Global Initiative, born in 2005, is a kind of free-floating worldwide SXSW festival that gathers important people together to network and to talk about deep problems.

It was renamed the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation in 2013. (The Clintons have a separate family foundation through which they funnel their own giving.)

Sounds OK. What's the issue?

The problem is donors have been asking for stuff. Emails disclosed due to a lawsuit by the conservative group Judicial Watch reveal a number of instances where people who gave money to the foundation used foundation contacts to funnel various requests to Clinton’s State Department staff.

For instance, a wealthy West Coast sports executive asked a Clinton Foundation official for help in getting a visa for a British client, a soccer star denied entry to the US due to criminal charges. The Crown Prince of Bahrain asked a foundation official for help getting a meeting with Clinton.

“Good friend of ours,” noted foundation official Douglas Band when forwarding the request.

At least 85 people from private interests who had donated to the Clinton Foundation met with Clinton while she was secretary of State, according to an Associated Press review of her calendars.

Oh. So donors bought influence?

That’s unclear. There is no hard evidence that foundation donors actually received anything for their trouble, or at least anything to which they weren’t entitled as a matter of course. The British soccer star did not receive a visa, for instance. The Crown Prince of Bahrain did get his meeting – but it was managed through normal diplomatic channels. Plus, he’s the sort of person a secretary of State routinely meets with as part of their job.

Perhaps the most startling thing about these emails was how clearly they revealed donor expectations. However Clinton responded, donors felt their money entitled them to access and accelerated consideration. That’s a window into the larger problem of money in US politics overall.

Candidates and parties all insist that the cash flowing into their coffers doesn’t buy them or their actions. But many donors aren’t writing checks due to ideological belief, or just the thrill. They expect a return, and one of the most difficult stories to follow in Washington is how the political class fends off these requests. Or doesn’t.

What's going to happen now?

The foundation has already stopped taking donations from most foreign governments, with the exception of such politically benign allies as Australia, Canada, and some European nations. If Clinton wins the presidency, the foundation will stop taking all foreign and most corporate donations; Bill Clinton will resign from the foundation board and the Clinton Health Access Initiative. Chelsea Clinton will remain.

Those actions probably wouldn’t be enough to make critics go away. Pressure is rising on the Clintons to sever ties to the foundation entirely. A number of news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have editorialized that the foundation needs to ban all foreign and corporate donations starting now, and that all members of the Clinton family will need to erect a virtual wall between themselves and the foundation during a Clinton term in office.

The foundation has done tremendous good throughout the world, critics admit. But that needn’t be lost. What they want is for no one to believe that funding those good works buys influence with or access to the president of the United States.

“Achieving true distance from the foundation is not only necessary to ensure its effectiveness, it is an ethical imperative for Mrs. Clinton,” writes the Times editorial board. 

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