Rick Cohen on why foundation gifts could prove a headache for Hillary Clinton

The all-but-guaranteed Democratic candidate for President in 2016 has suffered a run of bad press about her family foundation, writes our US columnist

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

The mix of politics and charity has bedevilled American politicians: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and even John McCain have endured criticism about charities or foundations run by family members or close aides, and often used by special interests to secure influence with powerful decision-makers. Now Hillary Clinton, the all-but-guaranteed Democratic candidate for President in 2016, has suffered a run of bad press about her family foundation.

The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation, which has assets of $226m, has acknowledged receiving donations from foreign governments while she was Secretary of State. The amounts are eye-popping: more than $5m from Kuwait, between $1m and $5m from Qatar and the UAE, and between $10m and $25m from Saudi Arabia.

Less widely reported is the list of corporations involved with the foundation, including banks that have been on the wrong side of government regulators; concerns have ranged from prohibited financial dealings with Iran and Cuba, the manipulation of interest rates (for which Barclays was fined $450m) and engaging in abusive home mortgage lending (Goldman Sachs reached a settlement to pay $1.2bn; HSBC paid $500m in a similar way).

There doesn't seem to be anything illegal about the donations, providing there was no explicit quid pro quo. However, donors to politicians' foundations usually don't look for specific payoffs, but rather for access, influence and favourable treatment. And these donations suggest that Mrs Clinton's foundation was willing to take money from countries, such as Saudi Arabia, with policies contradictory to her own beliefs on issues such as women's rights and free speech. And the contributions of the banks give the impression she is too close to Wall Street.

Foreign governments are prohibited from contributing to US political campaigns, and public charities cannot engage in partisan political activity.

But the problem for the potential presidential candidate is the impression that she might be beholden to special interests, corporate or national. The messy charity involvements of McCain et al never featured in their presidential campaigns. But Hillary Clinton could find her family's foundation – increasingly dependent as it is on outside contributions from big corporations and foreign governments - to be an albatross in the coming campaign.

Rick Cohen, is the national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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