- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Mrs. Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

Donors who were granted time with Mrs. Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladeshi government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran, a Wall Street executive who sought Mrs. Clinton’s help with a visa problem and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Mrs. Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.

The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Mrs. Clinton. Her calendars and emails released as recently as this week describe scores of contacts she and her top aides had with foundation donors.

The AP’s findings represent the first systematic effort to calculate the scope of the intersecting interests of Clinton Foundation donors and people who met personally with Mrs. Clinton or spoke with her by phone about their needs.

The 154 did not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives. Mrs. Clinton met with representatives of at least 16 foreign governments that donated as much as $170 million to the Clinton charity, but they were not included in AP’s calculations because such meetings would presumably have been part of her diplomatic duties.

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign said Tuesday that the AP analysis was flawed because it did not include in its calculations meetings with foreign diplomats or U.S. government officials, and the meetings AP examined covered only the first half of Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

“It is outrageous to misrepresent Secretary Clinton’s basis for meeting with these individuals,” spokesman Brian Fallon said. He called it “a distorted portrayal of how often she crossed paths with individuals connected to charitable donations to the Clinton Foundation.”

Last week, the Clinton Foundation moved to head off ethics concerns about future donations by announcing changes planned if Mrs. Clinton is elected.

On Monday, Mr. Clinton said in a statement that if his wife wins the presidency, he would step down from the foundation’s board and stop all fundraising for it. The foundation would accept donations only from U.S. citizens and what it described as independent philanthropies, while no longer taking gifts from foreign groups, U.S. companies or corporate charities. Mrs. Clinton said the foundation would no longer hold annual meetings of its international aid program, the Clinton Global Initiative, and it would spin off its foreign-based programs to other charities.

Those planned changes would not affect more than 6,000 donors who have provided the Clinton charity with more than $2 billion in funding since its creation in 2000.

“There’s a lot of potential conflicts and a lot of potential problems,” said Douglas White, an analyst on nonprofits who previously directed Columbia University’s graduate fundraising management program. “The point is, she can’t just walk away from these 6,000 donors.”

Former senior White House ethics officials said a Clinton administration would have to take careful steps to ensure that past foundation donors would not have the same access as she allowed at the State Department.

“If Secretary Clinton puts the right people in and she’s tough about it and has the right procedures in place and sends a message consistent with a strong commitment to ethics, it can be done,” said Norman L. Eisen, who was President Obama’s top ethics counsel and later worked for Mrs. Clinton as ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Mr. Eisen, now a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that at a minimum, Mrs. Clinton should retain the Obama administration’s ethics commitments and oversight, which include lobbying restrictions and other rules. Richard Painter, who was an ethics adviser to President George W. Bush and is currently a University of Minnesota law school professor, said Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton should remove themselves completely from foundation leadership roles, but he added that potential conflicts would shadow any policy decisions affecting past donors.

‘Pay to play’

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence said the AP analysis was evidence of “pay to play” politics at Mrs. Clinton’s State Department. He called for the foundation to be shut down and for an independent prosecutor to be appointed to investigate.

Some of Mrs. Clinton’s most influential visitors donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation and to her and her husband’s political coffers. They are among scores of Clinton visitors and phone contacts in her official calendar turned over by the State Department to AP last year and in more-detailed planning schedules that have covered about half of her four-year tenure. The AP sought Mrs. Clinton’s calendar and schedules three years ago, but delays led the AP to sue the State Department last year in federal court for those materials and other records.

S. Daniel Abraham, whose name also was included in emails released by the State Department as part of another lawsuit, is a Clinton fundraising bundler who was listed in Mrs. Clinton’s planners for eight meetings with her at various times. A billionaire behind the Slim-Fast diet and founder of the Center for Middle East Peace, Mr. Abraham told the AP last year that his talks with Mrs. Clinton concerned Middle East issues.

Big Clinton Foundation donors with no history of political giving to the Clintons also met or talked by phone with Mrs. Clinton and top aides, AP’s review showed.

Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering low-interest “microcredit” for poor business owners, met with Mrs. Clinton three times and talked with her by phone during a period when Bangladeshi government authorities investigated his oversight of a nonprofit bank and ultimately pressured him to resign from the bank’s board. Throughout the process, he pleaded for help in messages routed to Mrs. Clinton, and she ordered aides to find ways to assist him.

American affiliates of his nonprofit Grameen Bank had been working with the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Global Initiative programs as early as 2005, pledging millions of dollars in microloans for the poor. Grameen America, the bank’s nonprofit U.S. flagship, which Mr. Yunus chairs, has given $100,000 to $250,000 to the foundation — a figure that bank spokeswoman Becky Asch said reflects the institution’s annual fees to attend Clinton Global Initiative meetings. Another Grameen arm chaired by Mr. Yunus, Grameen Research, has donated $25,000 to $50,000.

As a U.S. senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton, as well as Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and two other senators, sponsored a bill in 2007 to award a congressional gold medal to Mr. Yunus. He got one but not until 2010, a year after Mr. Obama awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mr. Yunus first met with Mrs. Clinton in Washington in April 2009. Six months later, USAID, the State Department’s foreign aid arm, announced that it was partnering with the Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit charity run by Mr. Yunus, in a $162 million commitment to extend its microfinance concept abroad. USAID also began providing loans and grants to the Grameen Foundation, totaling $2.2 million over Mrs. Clinton’s tenure.

By September 2009, Mr. Yunus began complaining to Mrs. Clinton’s top aides about what he perceived as poor treatment by Bangladesh’s government. His bank was accused of financial mismanagement of Norwegian government aid money — a charge that Norway later dismissed as baseless. But Mr. Yunus told Melanne Verveer, a longtime Clinton aide who was an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, that Bangladesh officials refused to meet with him and asked the State Department for help in pressing his case.

“Please see if the issues of Grameen Bank can be raised in a friendly way,” he asked Ms. Verveer. Mr. Yunus sent “regards to H” and cited an upcoming Clinton Global Initiative event he planned to attend.

Mrs. Clinton ordered an aide: “Give to EAP rep,” referring the problem to the agency’s top East Asia specialist.

Mr. Yunus continued writing to Ms. Verveer as pressure mounted on his bank. In December 2010, responding to a news report that Bangladesh’s prime minister was urging an investigation of Grameen Bank, Mrs. Clinton told Ms. Verveer that she wanted to discuss the matter with her East Asia specialist “ASAP.”

Mrs. Clinton called Mr. Yunus in March 2011 after the Bangladeshi government opened an inquiry into his oversight of Grameen Bank. Mr. Yunus told Ms. Verveer by email that “the situation does not allow me to leave the country.” By mid-May, the Bangladeshi government had forced Mr. Yunus to step down from the bank’s board. Mr. Yunus sent Mrs. Clinton a copy of his resignation letter. In a separate note to Ms. Verveer, Mrs. Clinton wrote: “Sad indeed.”

Mrs. Clinton met with Mr. Yunus a second time in Washington in August 2011 and again in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka in May 2012. Mrs. Clinton arrived after Bangladeshi authorities moved to seize control of Grameen Bank’s effort to find new leaders. Speaking to a town hall audience, Mrs. Clinton warned the Bangladeshi government that “we do not want to see any action taken that would in any way undermine or interfere in the operations of the Grameen Bank.”

Grameen America’s Asch referred other questions about Mr. Yunus to his office, but he had not responded by Tuesday.

Question of influence

State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau acknowledged this month that agency officials are “regularly in touch with a range of outside individuals and organizations,” including nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks. But Ms. Trudeau said the State Department was not aware of any actions that were influenced by the Clinton Foundation.

In another case, Mrs. Clinton was host at a September 2009 breakfast meeting at the New York Stock Exchange that listed Blackstone Group Chairman Stephen Schwarzman as one of the attendees. Mr. Schwarzman’s firm is a major Clinton Foundation donor, but he personally donates heavily to Republican candidates and causes. One day after the breakfast, according to Clinton emails, the State Department was working on a visa issue at Mr. Schwarzman’s request. In December that year, Mr. Schwarzman’s wife, Christine, sat at Mrs. Clinton’s table during the Kennedy Center Honors. Mrs. Clinton also introduced Mr. Schwarzman, then chairman of the Kennedy Center, before he spoke.

Blackstone donated $250,000 to $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Eight Blackstone executives also gave $375,000 to $800,000 to the foundation. Blackstone’s charitable arm has pledged millions of dollars in commitments to three Clinton Global aid projects from the U.S. to the Middle East. Blackstone officials did not make Mr. Schwarzman available for comment.

Mrs. Clinton also met in June 2011 with Nancy Mahon of the MAC AIDS, the charitable arm of MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder. The meeting occurred before an announcement about a State Department partnership to raise money to finance AIDS education and prevention. The public-private partnership was formed to fight gender-based violence in South Africa, the State Department said at the time.

The MAC AIDS fund donated $5 million to $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. In 2008, Ms. Mahon and the MAC AIDS fund made a three-year unspecified commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative. That same year, the fund partnered with two other organizations to beef up a USAID program in Malawi and Ghana. In 2011, the fund was one of eight organizations to pledge a total of $2 million over a three-year period to help girls in southern Africa. The fund has not made a commitment to Clinton Global Initiative since 2011.

Estee Lauder executive Fabrizio Freda met with Mrs. Clinton at the same Wall Street event attended by Mr. Schwarzman. Later that month, Mr. Freda was on a list of attendees for a meeting between Mrs. Clinton and a U.S.-China trade group. Estee Lauder has given $100,000 to $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation. The company made a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2013 with four other organizations to help survivors of sexual slavery in Cambodia.

MAC AIDs officials did not make Ms. Mahon available to AP for comment.

When Mrs. Clinton appeared before the U.S. Senate in early 2009 for her confirmation hearing as secretary of state, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, questioned her at length about the foundation and potential conflicts of interest. His concerns were focused on foreign government donations, mostly to the Clinton Global Initiative. Mr. Lugar wanted more transparency than was ultimately agreed upon between the foundation and Mr. Obama’s transition team.

Now, Mr. Lugar hopes Mr. and Mrs. Clinton make a clean break from the foundation.

“The Clintons, as they approach the presidency, if they are successful, will have to work with their attorneys to make certain that rules of the road are drawn up to give confidence to them and the American public that there will not be favoritism,” Mr. Lugar said.

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