Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton attends Laureate International Universities’ Summit on Youth and Jobs in Europe in Madrid in May 2013. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee
September 5, 2016 at 6:51 PM

The guest list for a private State Department dinner on higher- education policy was taking shape when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a suggestion.

In addition to recommending invitations for leaders from a community college and a church-funded institution, Clinton wanted a representative from a for-profit college company called Laureate International Universities, which, she explained in an email to her chief of staff that was released last year, was “the fastest growing college network in the world.”

There was another reason Clinton favored setting a seat aside for Laureate at the August 2009 event: The company was started by a businessman, Doug Becker, “who Bill likes a lot,” the secretary wrote, referring to her husband, the former president.

Nine months later, Laureate signed Bill Clinton to a lucrative deal as a consultant and “honorary chancellor,” paying him $17.6 million over five years until the contract ended in 2015 as Hillary Clinton launched her campaign for president.

There is no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton, but the Baltimore-based company had much to gain from an association with a globally connected ex-president and, indirectly, the United States’ chief diplomat. Being included at the 2009 dinner, shoulder to shoulder with leaders from internationally renowned universities for a discussion about the role of higher education in global diplomacy, provided an added level of credibility for the business as it pursued an aggressive expansion strategy overseas, occasionally tangling with foreign regulators.

“A lot of these private-education guys, they’re looking to get into events like this one,” said Sam Pitroda, a higher-education expert who was representing a policy commission from India at the State Department dinner. “The discussion itself is irrelevant. . . . It gets you very high-level contacts, and it gets you to the right people.”

While much of the controversy about Hillary Clinton’s State Department tenure has involved donations to her family’s charity, the Clinton Foundation, a close examination of the Laureate deal reveals how Bill Clinton leveraged the couple’s connections during that time to enhance their personal wealth — potentially providing another avenue for supporters to gain access to the family.

In addition to his well-established career as a paid speaker, which began soon after he left the Oval Office, Bill Clinton took on new consulting work starting in 2009, at the same time Hillary Clinton assumed her post at the State Department. Laureate was the highest-paying client, but Bill Clinton signed contracts worth millions with GEMS Education, a secondary-education chain based in Dubai, as well as Shangri-La Industries and Wasserman Investment, two companies run by longtime Democratic donors. All told, with his consulting, writing and speaking fees, Bill Clinton was paid $65.4 million during Hillary Clinton’s four years as secretary of state.

[For Clintons, speech income shows how their wealth intertwines with charity]

Details of Bill Clinton’s compensation are found in the couple’s tax returns, which were made public by his wife’s presidential campaign and provide an unusual glimpse into the way a former president can make millions in the private sector. Bill Clinton has proved particularly marketable because of his global celebrity, enhanced by his foundation, his continued visibility on the political scene and his wife’s stature as a senator, Cabinet official and potential president.

The Laureate arrangement illustrates the extent to which the Clintons mixed their charitable work with their private and political lives. Many of those who paid Bill Clinton to consult or speak were also foundation donors and, in some cases, supporters of political campaigns for one or both Clintons.

Douglas Becker, chairman and chief executive of Laureate Education, takes part in a panel discussion at a Clinton Global Initiative gathering in Rio de Janeiro in December 2013. (Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg News)

Becker, for example, donated to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and last year donated $2,700 to her current effort. Laureate has given between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation, according to the charity’s website, and made millions of dollars of charitable commitments through the Clinton Global Initiative, an arm of the foundation that arranged for corporations to make public pledges to their own philanthropic projects. Meanwhile, Laureate portrayed its association with the Clintons as a symbol of its legitimacy rather than the result of a business deal.

“People know that somebody like President Clinton, the most important thing to him is his reputation,” Becker said in a 2010 appearance at a Laureate campus in Malaysia. “And to attach himself to an organization that he doesn’t believe in, he would never do it. It wouldn’t make sense — not just with his own legacy and history but, in his case, being the spouse of the U.S. secretary of state, for example.”

When Becker introduced Clinton at an event at the same campus the next year, he read a statement from Malaysia’s education minister declaring that “there must be something very special about Laureate that has inspired President Clinton to devote his energy to such an endeavor.”

Aides to Clinton and representatives of Laureate characterized the arrangement as one that advanced global access to education.

Angel Urena, a Clinton spokesman, said the former president “engaged with students at Laureate’s campuses worldwide and advised Laureate’s leadership on social responsibility and increasing access to higher education.” Adam Smith, a Laureate spokesman, said Clinton “was paid to advise Laureate, inspire students and visit the campuses and communities they serve, and that’s what he did, with great conviction and energy.”

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