Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is using her nomination as secretary of state to encourage supporters to give her money to pay off her presidential campaign debt, and she can continue to do so legally should she be confirmed.
The Hatch Act governing executive branch officials and employees would require Mrs. Clinton to cease new fundraising if, as expected, she joins President-elect Barack Obama’s administration in January.
But the law allows her presidential committee to keep raising money - and she can even attend fundraisers - in order to retire her campaign debt.
She’s not wasting any time. A “congratulations” e-mail to supporters from former President Bill Clinton linked to a page soliciting donations to Hillary Clinton for President. Mrs. Clinton and her husband are attending a fundraiser this month in New York.
The secretary of state-designate apparently is a big fundraising draw, as Mr. Obama also is using the announcement to raise money, asking for cash when telling supporters he had chosen Mrs. Clinton, his former presidential rival, for the Cabinet post. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe e-mailed supporters Tuesday to list the members of the new national security team in a note that included a “Please donate” button linking to the transition fundraising Web page.
Mrs. Clinton raised more than $217 million for her presidential bid and millions more for other Democrats running for office. As of her latest filing, Mrs. Clinton’s committee remains saddled with $7.6 million in debt, a big drop from previous reports but still a hefty sum.
The Clintons are set to take part in a Dec. 15 “conversation” with “Ugly Betty” actress and Clinton supporter America Ferrera at the event, which is billed as supporting her campaign debt relief.
The invitation notes that supporters who recruit at least 10 people to give the maximum $1,000 donation will get a “VIP seat upgrade and backstage photo with Hillary.” General seats are $50.
Thursday night, an Obama transition source said the president-elect would tap into his huge donor list to help Mrs. Clinton pay off her debt.
An e-mail appeal by Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf will be sent to Mr. Obama’s 13-million-strong e-mail list, the source said. The e-mail had not been sent by Thursday night.
Ethics watchdog groups and campaign finance analysts said the law lets the Hillary Clinton for President Committee continue fundraising even if she is confirmed for the Cabinet position, provided that the solicitation does not come from her personally.
In addition, a 2001 advisory opinion authored by the Bush administration’s Office of Special Counsel even allows for attendance at debt-relief fundraisers as long as the Cabinet member does not speak beyond a brief statement of appreciation.
Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act unit at the Office of Special Counsel, said the opinion is “very narrow” and covers a “unique situation where the Cabinet member is a previously elected official and only involves the retirement of campaign debt.”
“They can get up and say ‘Thank you,’ but that’s pretty much it,” she said.
The person could “be recognized and briefly state the appreciation to all whose efforts contributed to the retirement of the campaign debt. … [A]ny participation beyond this passive role would inevitably involve the employee in fundraising activity beyond what the law permitted,” the Feb. 14, 2001, opinion authored by William E. Reukauf states.
Asked whether Mrs. Clinton may continue to use the committee to raise money, Clinton senior adviser Philippe Reines responded, “She has said that repaying her campaign vendors is a priority for her, and it remains so.”
Watchdog groups said they hope Mr. Obama will ignore the opinion and forbid government officials and employees from attending, warning it could be a major conflict of interest.
Craig Holman, governmental affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said he doubts Mrs. Clinton would exploit the wiggle room in the law once she becomes secretary of state.
“I would expect Hillary Clinton to stop fundraising and pay off the rest of her personal debts out of her own assets before she assumes the job,” he said. “She could do it legally, but for Obama this has been a big issue, trying to make sure that his campaign, his transition team and his administration will stand up for ethics.”
Mr. Holman, who has been consulting with the transition team, said he strongly disagrees with the 2001 advisory opinion, saying that “making an appearance is a big thing” and he thinks it would “cross the line.”
“I would not expect Hillary Clinton to start wading into this ethical minefield once she becomes secretary of state. She’s going to have enough to do,” he said.
“That to me doesn’t seem like a very bright line,” said Paul Ryan, the Federal Election Commission program director and associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group.
Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said fundraising e-mails from the committee raise no red flags, but he cautioned that attending fundraisers could present the wrong image that big donors have Mrs. Clinton’s ear and could influence her work as the nation’s top diplomat.
“If she holds a flurry of in-person fundraising events before she becomes secretary of state and attendance is dominated by Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Israeli-Americans, Italian-Americans or any others interested in foreign policy objectives of another nation, that’s another matter,” he said.
Mr. Clinton’s e-mail Monday noted “exciting news” about her nomination.
“This nomination would not have been possible without the hard work of everyone like you who has supported Hillary throughout the years. I know I speak for her when I say thank you for everything you have done for her,” he wrote, directing supporters to a link where they could wish her congratulations and where a large “contribute” button was prominently featured.
The largest portion of the Clinton campaign debt - $5.3 million - is for her former chief strategist Mark Penn. She owes direct mail firm MSHC Partners $831,000 and former spokesman Howard Wolfson’s Gotham Acme is owed $250,000. Mrs. Clinton, who loaned herself more than $13 million during the primary campaign against Mr. Obama, owes herself $78,000.
She has paid off all of the small vendors such as hotels in Iowa and bills for campaign events.