April 18, 2015; Newsweek

We discovered last week that our coverage of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation was criticized on Facebook as evidence that “the Democratic ‘Far Left’ is working harder than Fox News and the GOP to tarnish Hillary’s bid for the presidency,” because we raised questions about the interrelationships of the foundation, the secretary of state, and Cisco Systems at a time when Cisco was helping China erect its “Great Firewall.” Unfortunately, when a public figure in the political game has important connections to the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, NPQ is going to point them out. Neither political party affiliation nor electoral aspirations allows a politician to get a pass on these issues, no matter how much readers may support or oppose a politician in question.

In the end, whatever the Clinton Foundation has or has not done may not be much of a factor in a presidential election where the electorate’s major concerns are more likely to be about domestic economic and social issues. But the foundation continues to provide grist for stories.

The latest comes from Newsweek, whose Rory Ross reports that the biggest donor to the Clinton Foundation is one Victor Pinchuk, identified as a Ukrainian oligarch. (As an aside, why is it that billionaires from Eastern Europe are “oligarchs” but domestic billionaires like Bill Gates don’t get that descriptor?) Pinchuk is also apparently the biggest donor to the Tony Blair Foundation, Blair’s Clinton-wannabe philanthropic vehicle.

According to Ross, Pinchuk has been supplying Iran with products related to oil and gas production, which specifically fall within U.S. sanctions against Iran. (The sanctions actually prohibit any single invoice of over $1m to Iran’s petrochemical industry, but Ross describes Pinchuk’s invoices as “high value,” presumably to mean that they would have been included within the range of sanctioned goods and services.) On one hand, Pinchuk’s company, Interpipe Group, is incorporated in Cyprus and in theory not covered by U.S. sanctions. On the other hand, the U.S. government has penalized other non-U.S. companies that it has deemed to be working against U.S. foreign policy, specifically denying such companies access to U.S. markets and the U.S. banking system.

During the time that Interpipe was making these deliveries to Iran, the secretary of state in charge of making the policy determination of whether or not to penalize Pinchuk’s company was Hillary Clinton. Pinchuk claims to be friends with former president Bill Clinton, having attended Clinton’s 65th birthday party in 2011 and inviting the former president to his 50th birthday party held in a French ski resort.

To be clear, Ross doesn’t actually identify a specific quid pro quo between the former president, the former secretary of state, and Pinchuk linking his donations to the foundation to his escaping potential sanctions levied by the U.S. government. However, Hillary Clinton’s critics are going to be mapping these and other connections, much like the Cisco Systems item we described last week, to show a web of Clinton Foundation dealings with individual and corporate donors of ill repute (remember our comments about the former president’s relationship with Canadian investor Frank Giustra). While Ross doesn’t really suggest anything specifically untoward about what Hillary Clinton did or didn’t do (and we suspect that many more foreign corporations have gotten passes bypassing sanctions that had no connections to the Clinton Foundation at all), the importance of his story is less about Hillary Clinton and more about the potential motivations of the super-rich who give to politically connected charities and foundations.

Possessing a world class personal art collection and owning a home in London purchased for a mere £80 million, Pinchuk is clearly able to be a massive donor to the Clinton Foundation, but like so many others of his ilk who show up with checks, Pinchuk’s philanthropic motivations might be more complex than helping the former president with Haitian disaster relief or fighting diseases in Africa. Donors to foundations connected to actual or potential political leaders, as in the case of the Clinton Foundation with Hillary Clinton in the mix, sometimes gin up concern for the foundation’s philanthropic priorities when their real motivations are political access and face-time. One would hope that Bill Clinton, accustomed to dealing with people like Pinchuk, wouldn’t carry Pinchuk’s baggage to the Department of State, and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, would know to turn off overt or covert influence peddling by anyone who might want to put in a good word for the Ukrainian oligarch.—Rick Cohen