- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When Hillary Clinton stepped in front of a podium this week to announce a new initiative to train and hire unemployed young Americans, some familiar corporate logos were plastered in the background behind her. Companies like JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft and Courtyard Marriott donned the backdrop.

They were familiar to most Americans as household corporate names. But for former President and Mrs. Clinton, they were familiar in a different way, as big-ticket entries in their personal checkbooks.

Long before getting behind Mrs. Clinton’s latest public service effort, all three companies enriched her husband, former President Bill Clinton, with six-figure speaking fees that turned the 1990s Arkansas middle-class family into millionaires on the strength of his gilded tongue. And some of the companies were also gracious sponsors to the former president’s Clinton Global Initiative foundation that provides him his day job in retirement from the White House.

The episode is the latest example of how the Clintons have intertwined their public service and private gain, often tapping the same sources for money that benefits them politically, personally and charitably. And that exclusive club of philanthropic and corporate interests will also likely be at the top of the list of companies seeking favor should Mrs. Clinton run for the White House and win.

“One of the big problems in democracy is that these relationships are developed over long periods of times,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, noting that political dynasties like the Clintons or Bushes often have long-term relationships with many different people and corporate interests.

“The payoff may be far in the future,” she said. “That’s especially difficult for the press, researchers and ultimately the public to connect the dots.”

The sometimes thin line between national leaders and corporations has often been a cause of concern among some watchdogs, especially following the Citizens United case and several other Supreme Court rulings that have removed limits on just how much can be contributed to political candidates’ campaigns.

Donations to a candidate’s personal charities, initiatives or private work are often more difficult to discern and track, but just as often used to gain access to those who hold power in Washington.

The companies who are supporting Mrs. Clinton’s new jobs push have also funded Mr. Clinton’s speaking tour since leaving office. He spoke at a Microsoft event in Washington, D.C. in July, 2010, garnering $175,000 for his time. In October, 2012, he spoke to JPMorgan in New York for a fee of $200,000. And in June 2013, he traveled to Orlando, Fla., to address the general managers of various Marriott hotels, likely pulling in his average $200,000 speaking fee.

Presidential speakers often command high sums, but just how much usually isn’t disclosed. The public has gotten a window into the value of Mr. Clinton’s market value thanks to required public disclosure forms filed by his wife while she served as a U.S. senator from New York and then secretary of state.

The companies have also funded the Clinton Foundation. Records show that Microsoft has donated between $500,000 to $1 million. The group founded by the former head of Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been an even more involved donor, contributing more than $25 million.

When looking at politicians’ actions — especially joint charity-corporate endeavors like Clintons — the public needs to make some fine distinctions, said Ms. Krumholz.

“On the one hand we have to be wary of excessive cynicism,” she said. “It’s great that politicians will use their clout to promote charitable causes.”

On the other hand, that cynicism is often warranted, Ms. Krumholz said, noting that corporations and special-interest groups often view such donations as “short-cuts” to achieving their goals and garnering support for their legislative agendas.

“Companies and organizations may feel pressure to do this to get a competitive edge and to compete with other organizations that are doing this,” she said. “The ones that are contributing may use their support as an attempt to curry favor with the politicians.”

Currently on tour promoting her new book, “Hard Choices,” Mrs. Clinton has shown she can command just as large a fee for public speaking as her husband. Nevada newspapers reported Monday that Mrs. Clinton accepted $225,000 from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to deliver the keynote address at an Oct. 13 university fundraiser.

Despite apparently having hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay out for speeches, UNLV officials have also announced they are raising tuition prices by 4 percent per year for the next four years.

‘Dead broke’

Mrs. Clinton’s own financial situation has recently been the focus in the news after she asserted in an interview with ABC News that her family left the White House “dead broke.”

While it is true that the family had large amounts of debt at the end of Mr. Clinton’s presidency, the statement has elicited criticism on both sides of the aisle from people who point out that Mr. Clinton quickly started on a multi-million dollar speaking tour and Mrs. Clinton became a senator from New York.

And the Clinton Foundation has often been accused of helping to funnel money and resources to the family’s public ambitions.

An August 2013 piece by the New York Times found some employees had become concerned over the financial health of the foundation, worried that solid charity work was being eschewed in favor of celebrity-fueled events featuring the Clintons.

Many of the foundation’s leaders are members of the Clintons’ inner political circles, and possibly will be connected with the White House in the future. The article said the foundation ran up a $40 million deficit in 2007 and 2008 when Mrs. Clinton ran for president — strapped for money from donors who were now funneling funds into the political race instead.

Representatives for the Clinton Foundation directed questions to Mrs. Clinton’s personal aides, who did not return calls seeking comment.

The Better Business Bureau has in the past questioned the foundation’s possible “conflicts of interest,” though it currently has given the charity a good rating in that field.

Mrs. Clinton’s announcement of the job program came at this week’s Clinton Global Initiative America annual conference in Denver. The goal is to get companies to promise greater job training and career opportunities to young people as part of the Clinton Foundation’s “Job One” initiative.

“We’ve assembled a network of business prepared to commit to providing new opportunities,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We know we all have a lot of work to do.”

Job One launches with 10 companies having already promised to expand paid internships, job shadows and career mentoring. Along with Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase and Courtyard Marriott, The Gap, Lifeway Foods, MDC Partners, Salesforce.com, Corning, Ernst & Young and Symantec have made commitments.

The foundation hopes the Job One program will reach 150,000 young people.

Voters must remain vigilant about close associations between politicians and special interests, Ms. Krumholz said, as money can often “grease the skids on policy that really doesn’t deserve to move forward.”

When it comes to charities, the money helps fund worthy causes, politicians gain prestige, and businesses can write it off as a tax expense while getting access to the country’s leaders.

“Everybody wins except maybe the citizens who will reap policies based on the money,” Ms. Krumholz said.

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