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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Five things to know about the Clinton Foundation and its donors

By Jonathan Swan - 08-24-16 18:52 PM EDT

The private foundation run by the Clinton family has become the latest firestorm in the 2016 presidential race.

The Clinton Foundation consists of a host of non-profits that work on a variety of domestic and international issues. The Clinton Global Initiative, launched more than a decade ago, connects donors with good causes.

The problem, say critics, is that some of those donors might be seeking to buy access to the Clintons through their charitable work.

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has made the Clinton Foundation a new attack point for his campaign, ripping it as a "pay-to-play" organization that traded cash for access to the Hillary Clinton State Department.

He's demanded a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate its dealings.

The Clinton campaign and its surrogates have fired back, defending the organization's work raising millions to fight AIDS, promote economic development and combat global warming.

They argue there is no evidence of a pay-to-play scheme, and the Clinton campaign has heavily criticized an Associated Press report that said more than half of the people outside of government that Clinton met with as secretary of State were donors to the Foundation.

The Clinton campaign pointed out that the AP report didn't count federal employees or foreign government representatives whom Clinton met with, saying the news organization cherry picked numbers.

At the same time, former President Bill Clinton's decision that the foundation would stop taking foreign and corporate donations if his wife wins the presidency appeared to be a recognition of a possible conflict of interest in having big foreign interests donate to an organization identified with the Clintons.

Here are five things to know about the Clinton Foundation.

Bill Clinton established the foundation to tackle global challenges

When he explained his decision to resign from the board of his foundation, Bill Clinton discussed why he was proud of the organization.

"When I left the White House in 2001 and returned to life as a private citizen, I wanted to continue working in areas I had long cared about, where I believed I could still make an impact," Clinton wrote, in a note posted Monday on the Clinton Foundation's blog.

Clinton listed some of the Clinton Foundation's proudest achievements.

The former president said that thanks to the work of the foundation and its partners, more than 11.5 million people in over 70 countries have access to lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs at 90 percent lower cost.

And he highlighted other statistics including planting 5 million trees in Haiti, helping more than 105,000 African farmers increase their yields and incomes, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 33,500 tons annually across the U.S.

"If Hillary is elected president, the Foundation's work, funding, global reach, and my role in it will present questions that must be resolved in a way that keeps the good work going while eliminating legitimate concerns about potential conflicts of interest," Clinton said.

Clinton Foundation donors had business with the State Department

Perceptions that Clinton Foundation donors got special attention, and in some cases direct access to the Secretary, have been inflamed by the release of private emails sent by top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, following public records lawsuits launched by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch.

The donor contacts include a meeting between Clinton and the Crown Prince of Bahrain, a visa request pushed by Hollywood executive Casey Wasserman, a meeting scheduled with Slimfast tycoon S. Daniel Abraham, and the apparent connection of Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian developer and top foundation donor, with a senior State Department official.

Many of these conversations were brokered between longtime Bill Clinton aide Doug Band - who also worked for the foundation - and Abedin.

It is unclear if any of the meetings had anything to do with the donors connections to the Clinton Foundation.

The Clinton campaign has denied that anything improper happened.

In the case of Clinton's meeting with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, a Clinton aide noted that "meeting with foreign leaders is, by definition, the role of the Secretary of State".

The same Clinton aide pointed out that no visa was granted in the Wasserman case and that Daniel Abraham's meeting was appropriate as it had nothing to do with foundation business and was instead because he headed the Center for Middle East Peace.

Chagoury also rejected impropriety, saying through a spokesman that no meeting transpired and that he was "simply passing along his observations and insights about the dire political situation in Lebanon at the time."

There are many other instances of high-level contacts between top Clinton Foundation donors and either Clinton or other senior department officials; but no hard evidence has emerged showing that the Clinton State Department took actions as a result of money given to the Clinton Foundation.

Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin attacked Judicial Watch, the organization that has used public records lawsuits to expose hundreds of emails previously suppressed by the State Department, as a "right-wing organization that has been going after the Clintons since the 1990s."

"No matter how this group tries to mischaracterize these documents, the fact remains that Hillary Clinton never took action as Secretary of State because of donations to the Clinton Foundation."

Clinton and the Foundation promised transparency

Before Clinton could be installed as Secretary of State in 2009, she made promises to the Obama administration to avoid perceived or actual conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation - which relied heavily on foreign donors - and her work running U.S. foreign policy.

Half of the ethics pledge was Clinton's own promise, provided in a letter to a State Department ethics official.

"I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which The William J. Clinton Foundation (or the Clinton Global Initiative) is a party or represents a party..." she pledged.

The other half of the ethics arrangement was a memorandum of understanding struck between the Clinton Foundation and the office of President-elect Obama.

The key concessions in the MOU were that the Clinton Foundation would publish, and update annually, a list of its financial contributors during Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State; and that the foundation would submit for review to the State Department's ethics official any increase in donations from foreign countries or foreign government-owned corporations. Any new donor countries would also need to be reviewed.

Many of Clinton's supporters insist that these ethical agreements were strictly upheld.

But PolitiFact has judged such claims as "mostly false," at least as far as the spirit of the agreements is concerned.

While Clinton stayed largely removed from the haggling over access; her top aides at the State Department had extensive communications that intersected with Clinton Foundation business or the personal interests of donors.

Reports have also documented how the Clinton Foundation failed to uphold its disclosure promises, including $2.35 million through a Canadian foundation connected to a U.S. company with business before the State Department, and a $500,000 donation from Algeria.

Republicans are hammering these ethics failures.

"It is clear that the ethics agreement between the Clinton Foundation and the incoming administration failed to alleviate conflicts of interest, and at times was blatantly ignored," RNC official Michael Short said in a statement to The Hill Wednesday.

"Both the letter and spirit of the agreement were clearly violated."

The overlap created problems for Huma Abedin and other Clinton aides

During Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, her close personal aide Huma Abedin simultaneously held varied positions within Clintonland and the State Department.

As the Washington Post documented, Abedin in late 2012 "held four jobs with four different employers - an arrangement allowed by a special government designation she held permitting outside employment."

Abedin worked at the State Department; was employed by the private consulting firm Teneo; was being paid out of Clinton's personal funds; and was contracted to the Clinton Foundation.

Republican congressmen, chiefly Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been pursuing Abedin over her tangled employment situation; and the latest batch of emails released by the conservative group Judicial Watch have only intensified the spotlight on Abedin.

The emails between Band and Abedin have left many with the impression that Abedin was seen as a conduit between Clinton and foundation donors. The Clinton campaign argued that nothing improper happened and that Band was acting in his capacity as an aide to Bill Clinton, rather than on behalf of the foundation.

In one email exchange that has received a lot of attention, Band forwarded an email to Abedin to see if she could get the Clinton State Department to intervene to get a visa for members of the U.K.'s Wolverhampton Football Club. One of the team's members was apparently having difficulty getting a visa because of a "criminal charge."

Band was acting on behalf of Wasserman, a Hollywood executive whose family foundation has given between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation.

"I doubt we can do anything but maybe we can help with an interview. I'll ask," Abedin told Band.

She then followed up, seemingly indicating a concern about the ethics of what she was being asked to do, "I got this now, makes me nervous to get involved but I'll ask."

"Then don't," Band responded.

Responding to the incident, a Clinton campaign aide pointed out that the visa was never granted, adding that, "the emails themselves show that nothing happened here."

Some of the Clinton Foundation donors are controversial

Republicans have been slamming Clinton as a hypocrite for putting women's rights at the center of her campaign despite her family foundation taking millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia - a country that systematically oppresses women.

The Saudi donations are the tip of millions in foreign money that flowed into the Clinton Foundation. Other countries that have raised eyebrows on human rights grounds have included the UAE, Algeria, Qatar, Oman, and Brunei.

Another controversial connection has been a company, Uranium One, which was taken over by the Russians in a lucrative deal, which had to be approved by a number of U.S. government agencies including Hillary Clinton's State Department.

Building on the investigations of conservative journalist Peter Schweizer - whose anti-Clinton work has been partly funded by Robert Mercer, a leading Trump donor and hedge fund billionaire- the New York Times published a lengthy report in April 2015, that revealed an undisclosed flow of some $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation from a family foundation linked to the chairman of Uranium One.

In a statement to the New York Times, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon rejected the idea that Clinton had weighed in to help a foundation donor, emphasizing that numerous United States agencies, as well as the Canadian government, had to sign off on the deal.

Fallon added that no one "has ever produced a shred of evidence supporting the theory that Hillary Clinton ever took action as secretary of state to support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation."

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