- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

There was some overlap between the guest list at this week’s annual Clinton Global Initiative summit in New York and the list of supporters for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

But the more telling development was how many no-shows there were — as Mrs. Clinton’s biggest backers apparently stayed away in an attempt to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Big-name celebrities including Arianna Huffington, Elton John and Mark Zuckerberg made headlines by turning down invitations, and a host of top Clinton campaign bundlers who might have enjoyed the annual gala were nowhere to be found on the summit’s official agenda.

Some may have made behind-the-scenes appearances. But media billionaires Haim Saban and Fred Eychaner weren’t on the list as official speakers or attendees. Neither was data management magnate Amy Rao nor venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker.

Those four and roughly a dozen others have been the focus of media scrutiny since July, when the Clinton campaign indirectly revealed that they are among a core group that has helped steer more than $100,000 each to the campaign and has given a total of more than $50 million to the Clinton Foundation — either individually or through their own organizations.

The foundation, which oversees the Clinton Global Initiative and is run by Mrs. Clinton; her husband, former President Bill Clinton; and their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, has denied that there is anything untoward about its acceptance of major donations from the same people who raise money for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

The campaign also asserts that its fundraising activities are separate from the foundation and that exquisite care is taken to ensure transparency and legality on all fronts.

However, the politically sensitive fundraising connection between the two has prompted critics to cry foul since The Wall Street Journal first reported in July that at least 14 individuals who steered at least $100,000 each to the campaign also had given $22 million to $55 million to the foundation since its founding in 1999.

At least eight among the group, which the Clinton campaign website describes as “Hillblazers,” stepped up their contributions to the foundation over the eight months leading up to July.

The development gave at least the appearance that Mrs. Clinton was pushing her biggest campaign supporters to write checks for the foundation.

That appearance has been enhanced by reports of financial and organizational strain that had come to burden the foundation during the years that Mrs. Clinton was serving as the Obama administration’s secretary of state, from 2009 to 2013.

The New York Times reported in August 2013 that the foundation had gone so far as to tap Dennis Cheng, who served as finance director of Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and later as deputy chief of protocol under Mrs. Clinton at the State Department, to run the foundation’s effort to recharge its $250 million endowment.

At the time, the newspaper reported that some of the Clintons’ donors described the endowment drive as a dry run for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign. So it was no surprise when Mr. Cheng left the foundation early this year to once again become finance director for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential bid.

Clinton aides say there is nothing abnormal about the revolving door between the foundation and the campaign. But it operates against a backdrop of disapproval from Clinton critics who claim that Mrs. Clinton also used her position as secretary of state — while she was in the job and during the years immediately afterward — to lure donations for the foundation from multinational cooperations and foreign governments.

The Clinton campaign asserted that the foundation’s acceptance of millions of dollars from foreign governments — including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Sweden — had nothing to do with her time as secretary of state, broke no rule or law on charitable fundraising and posed no conflict of interest.

Indeed, foundation disclosures indicate the bulk of such foreign government donations were given after Mrs. Clinton resigned from the Obama administration in 2013. But unanswered questions remain.

The Washington Times reported in June that the foundation had set up a fundraising arm in Sweden that collected some $26 million in donations at the same time that country was lobbying Mrs. Clinton’s State Department to forgo sanctions that threatened its thriving business with Iran.

The Swedish entity, called the “William J. Clinton Foundation Insamlingsstiftelse,” was never disclosed to or cleared by State Department ethics officials, even though one of its largest sources of donations was a Swedish government-sanctioned lottery.

Such information lingered like a pall this week as the Clinton Global Initiative held its annual meeting, the timing of which coincided with the U.N. General Assembly’s convergence of world leaders, high-level diplomats and other luminaries to New York City.

According to Politico, the foundation invited notables including Pope Francis, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fed Chair Janet Yellen to its annual showcase, which began Saturday and ran through Tuesday evening. The stated aim was to celebrate the foundation’s success at organizing public and private entities toward improving the lives of people in need around the world.

Politico maintained that those invitations were among the dozens turned down by all manner of celebrities, dignitaries and donors, according to sources who said the controversies swirling around the foundation and Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign have made some boldfaced names and donors wary of the foundation.

That is not to say the annual meeting was not flush with high-level speakers. In addition to a series of breakout sessions led by leading academics, journalists, political figures from around the U.S. and the heads of several major charities and aid organizations, the event featured speeches by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Alibaba Group Chairman Jack Ma, Xerox Chairwoman Ursula Burns and others.

Yet the foundation’s claim to have done nothing wrong in the world of fundraising has failed to assuage concerns of critics.

A key charity watchdog group said last week that potential donors should think twice before giving money to the organization. A spokeswoman for Charity Navigator confirmed that the foundation has been on the group’s “watch list” since earlier this year. Charity Navigator’s website cited news reports of donations from foreign governments and the refiling of annual tax returns after reporting errors.

“Basically, it is a way of calling attention to an issue of concern that donors should consider before supporting a charity,” Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing, said in an email.

Despite the absence of top donors at this year’s summit, an examination of the Clinton Foundation’s website shows how the organization’s internal leadership is peppered with people who either worked for Mrs. Clinton at the State Department or played key roles in raising money for her political ambitions.

Cheryl Saban, who is listed on the Clinton campaign’s website as a “Hillblazer” beside her spouse, Israeli and American media mogul Haim Saban, is a member of the Clinton Foundation’s board of directors.

Also on the board is Cheryl Mills, who served as Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department. Emily Wurgraft, who once served as finance director of Emily’s List, which is named by the Clinton campaign as a “Hillblazer,” is identified on the foundation’s website as a development officer.

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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