Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), on September 23, 2014 in New York City. The annual meeting, established in 2005 by President Clinton, convenes global leaders to discuss solutions to world problems. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Donors are having second thoughts about big giving as accusations fly about Hillary Clinton’s role.
By Kenneth P. Vogel
4/30/15 – 6:02 AM EDT
Updated 4/30/15 11:42 AM EDT
A handful of deep-pocketed donors are reconsidering their gifts to the $2 billion Clinton Foundation amid mounting questions about how it’s spending their money and suggestions of influence peddling, according to donors and others familiar with the foundation’s fundraising.
One major donor who contributed at least $500,000 to the foundation last year said a 2015 donation is less likely because of revelations about sloppy record-keeping and huge payments for travel and administrative costs.
“There are a lot of factors and the reputational is among them,” said the donor, who did not want to be identified discussing philanthropic plans that have not been finalized. “We had some questions about how the money was being spent — and that was long before the problems were in the press.”
At least three other major donors also are re-evaluating whether to continue giving large donations to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, according to people familiar with its fundraising.
They say increasing financial pressures and escalating outside scrutiny have sparked sometimes intense internal debates about the priorities and future of a pioneering charitable vehicle that was supposed to cement the family’s legacy.
The uncertainty comes at the beginning of what was supposed to have been a four-month victory lap of sorts — starting with Bill and Chelsea Clinton’s trip to Africa with major donors this week. Next week’s splashy Clinton Global Initiative conference in Marrakesh was originally supposed to have been followed by a lavish reception and conference in Athens in June, and finally a September extravaganza in Manhattan featuring an appearance by Elton John.
Instead, it’s turned into heartburn for Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and for the foundation, which has been under increasing pressure to distance itself from its more controversial partners.
It scrapped early internal conversations about borrowing a private plane owned by Canadian billionaire donor Frank Giustra — whose business ties to Russia have brought recent scrutiny — to fly the delegation to Africa, according to sources with knowledge of the foundation’s planning (the foundation would not say who owns the plane that was ultimately used, which suffered engine problems Wednesday and was forced to make an unscheduled landing).
And it canceled the Athens conference amid what foundation sources describe as concerns about damaging Hillary Clinton’s campaign by collaborating with a Greek government that is increasingly close to Russia’s combative president Vladimir Putin.
Bill Clinton did not want to cancel the meeting, the sources said. They said the foundation had already booked a hotel and secured more than $1 million in funding from former Greek parliamentarian Gianna Angelopoulos, a major foundation donor who is friendly with the former president.
Meanwhile, the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea Clinton, objected to a suggestion that a high-profile program she spearheads, the Clinton Global Initiative University, be scaled back because it is as much as $700,000 in the red, say the sources. At a foundation staff meeting this month the day after her mother stepped down from the foundation board and announced her campaign for president, Chelsea Clinton defended CGI U’s value, calling the program, which holds free college events to encourage student participation in service projects, the most “pure” platform at CGI, according to the foundation sources familiar with the meeting.
This story is based on interviews with more than a dozen donors, staffers and operatives who have interacted with the foundation or continue to do so. Taken together, their accounts portray an organization scrambling to address concerns about its budgeting, fundraising and donor-vetting while being buffeted by a raging political storm.
The paradox is that Bill Clinton’s unparalleled fundraising ability — the secret to the foundation’s extraordinary global growth and programmatic successes — is now fueling the very questions and allegations complicating both the foundation’s efforts and his wife’s presidential campaign. Critics — emboldened by frenzied media scrutiny of the Clinton’s personal and charitable finances and a new book on the subject from a conservative author — are alleging without hard evidence that deep-pocketed individuals, companies and foreign governments wrote checks to the foundation or paid speaking fees to the former president to win favorable treatment from Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
Some Clinton allies argue that the former president should dial back his foundation role — even his appearances at CGI meetings, which he has embraced as his signature showcase — during the presidential campaign and any subsequent Clinton presidential administration.
“You can only imagine the scrutiny they’d face if she were president,” said a former Clinton aide, who was not authorized to speak for the foundation or the former first family. “They’d have to dramatically limit their universe of donors. But if she wins, that’s kind of a high-cost problem that they can survive,” said the former aide, suggesting the foundation’s appeal would be even greater for donors after the Clintons leave the White House for the second time.
The worst case scenario for the foundation, its allies say privately, would be if Clinton lost her presidential campaign in a manner similar to the way she lost her 2008 race to then-Sen. Barack Obama, which at least temporarily tarnished the family’s political brand. Unlike 2008, a losing 2016 campaign would effectively end the political ambitions of Bill or Hillary Clinton. That would thrust responsibility for the foundation’s future squarely into the hands of their daughter. While she is being groomed to take over the family’s political dynasty, thus far she has not demonstrated her parents’ fundraising prowess or leadership ability, say foundation sources.
In response to questions from POLITICO, Clinton Foundation officials disputed that the foundation is in turmoil or suffering from a budget crunch. They also rejected suggestions that Bill Clinton might limit his CGI role after the September meeting, pointing out he “has publicly said many times he wants to continue his work with CGI and the Clinton Foundation.” They pointed out that Elton John was invited to the New York meeting not to perform, but to collect an award for his two decades of work fighting AIDS.
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