Clinton Global Initiative

May 6, 2015; ABC News

Former President Clinton said from the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Middle East and Africa meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, that there isn’t “a shred of evidence” that the Clinton Foundation has done anything wrong in connection with the foreign donations it has received, or that the donors influenced decisions that might have been taken by Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State. He suggested that the critics have basically raised the insinuation of wrongdoing to “see if it flies, and it won’t fly.”

The former president said that when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, the foundation decided to “accept…money from people that were already giving us money,” presumably to preclude new donors who might pop up with interests more to influence Hillary Clinton than to support the Foundation’s charitable mission.

He also defended the idea of foreign governments delivering their assistance through the Clinton Foundation as opposed to established international organizations like agencies of the United Nations:

“[People] understand the enormous percentage of health and development work around the world is funded by governments and multinational organizations, and they fund us because they think we’re good and solving problems and taking care…taking advantage of opportunities.”

That doesn’t quite explain why they would choose his foundation as a financial intermediary as opposed to funding organizations that are by virtue of their origins and organizational structure more public than an American 501(c)(3), but that was his explanation nonetheless.

President Clinton also took umbrage at critics’ focus on the foreign government donors (and perhaps some of the big corporate donors too): “We also have 300,000 other donors and 90 percent of them give $100 or less,” he said.

The most strident defense of the foundation didn’t come from Clinton, but from telecom billionaire Mo Ibrahim, who has his own private international foundation and whose daughter is affiliated with the Clinton Global Initiative:

“I was in the U.S. 10 days ago. I opened the newspaper and I was shocked to see these attacks on the foundation,” Ibrahim said during the opening session of the CGI in Morocco. “I used to respect the American media. And I was amazed because I started to watch the news and Fox and other guys and none of those people asked a question: What this foundation is doing actually…What is wrong if Saudi Arabia gives money for a farm in Africa? What’s the big deal?”

“I just could not understand. I didn’t see anybody from the foundation standing up,” he added, and then he turned to President Clinton himself. “You should have stood up and really took issue—what is this money for? What have you done with it?…What’s the problem?”

Ibrahim declared the media scrutiny of the foundation a “political assassination process.”

It would have been appropriate  for President Clinton to have responded to Ibrahim with something different from his choices of “I just work here, I don’t know,” and “You know, there is one set of rules for politics in America and another set for real life. And you just have to learn to deal with it.” Because that’s not true. In U.S. philanthropy, as much as many foundations, philanthropic trade associations, and even foundation watchdogs fail to address nowadays, the ethics of foundation behavior is crucially important. Foundations cannot explain their way out of sticky situations by telling critics to look at the good that they’ve done. They have to be (or should be) open and transparent, and they have to avoid potential or actual conflicts of interest.

When Democrats rightfully criticized the DeLay Foundation for Kids and other politically crafted foundations of the Republicans several years ago, they were criticizing not whether Tom DeLay’s programs for foster children were a good thing, but whether potential donors to the DeLay Foundation might be buying face time and influence with the then–House Majority Leader. They were criticizing the potential for and appearance of conflict of interest with DeLay, just as they did with the numerous other political charities founded by or linked to prominent politicians like Rick Santorum and John McCain. The same holds true for the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton. The potential for conflicts of interest given that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State should be obvious to Ibrahim, and in a way, after his strident defense of the foundation, he sort of acknowledged as much.

“We know where the money is coming from and where it is going from, as long as no there are political favors that are given to people who are making donations,” Ibrahim said, concerning the foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation. “Actually, they were not in the past in position to make any political favors. Of course, if Madame Hillary becomes the president, the situation would have to be different.”

Actually, by virtue of her being Secretary of State, the situation was the same. She was in a position to provide favors—even if she didn’t do so—just as “Madame Hillary” would be if she were to be elected president. That’s exactly the point.

“These were not tabloids. These were respectable newspapers,” Ibrahim said in exasperation of the critical press reviews of the Clinton Foundation donors. He is clearly wrong to think that the U.S. press hasn’t given extensive and mostly laudatory coverage to the Clinton Foundation’s philanthropic work, but like many foundation execs, perhaps Ibrahim and the Clinton Foundation people tend to overreact to criticism and under-appreciate the positive press they get.

Ibrahim is sort of right that the current inquiries into the Clinton Foundation are tied to Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, but that reveals a mammoth problem in U.S. press coverage. Were it not for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, would the press have dug into the Clinton Foundation’s donors to uncover relationships with Frank Giustra (see here and here), various Eastern European oligarchs, and corporations with public image problems? In the absence of much philanthropic oversight emanating from the Internal Revenue Service, the press plays an important role in philanthropic accountability—and shouldn’t have to wait for presidential campaign announcements to remember that function.—Rick Cohen