Emails May Be a Key to Addressing ‘Pay-to-Play’ Whispers at Clinton Foundation

There are not two Clinton controversies. There is one big, hairy deal.

Ron Fournier
March 8, 2015, 10:37 a.m.

“Fol­low the money.” That apo­cryph­al phrase, at­trib­uted to Wa­ter­gate whistle-blower “Deep Throat,” ex­plains why the biggest threat to Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s pres­id­en­tial dreams is not her emails. It’s her fam­ily found­a­tion. That’s where the money is: cor­por­ate money, for­eign money, gobs of money slosh­ing around a van­ity char­ity that could be re­named “Clin­ton Con­flicts of In­terest Found­a­tion.”

What about the emails? Hil­lary Clin­ton’s secret com­mu­nic­a­tions cache is a bomb­shell de­serving of full dis­clos­ure be­cause of her as­sault on gov­ern­ment trans­par­ency and elec­tron­ic se­cur­ity. But its greatest rel­ev­ancy is what the emails might re­veal about any nex­us between Clin­ton’s work at State and dona­tions to the Bill, Hil­lary & Chelsea Clin­ton Found­a­tion from U.S. cor­por­a­tions and for­eign na­tions.

Un­der fire, Bill Clin­ton said his name­sake char­ity has “done a lot more good than harm”—hardly a ringing en­dorse­ment. One of his longest-serving ad­visers, a per­son who had worked dir­ectly for the found­a­tion, told me the “long­time whis­pers of pay-to-play are go­ing to be­come shouts.”

This per­son, a Clin­ton loy­al­ist and cred­ible source, has no evid­ence of wrong­do­ing but said the me­dia’s sus­pi­cions are war­ran­ted. “The emails are a re­lated but sec­ond­ary scan­dal,” the source said. “Fol­low the found­a­tion money.”

(RE­LATED: In Clin­ton Woes, Re­pub­lic­ans See Op­por­tun­ity—and Per­il)

Is the found­a­tion clean? Is it cor­rupt? Or is the truth in the muddy middle, where we so of­ten find the Clin­tons? Due to the fact that Hil­lary Clin­ton chose to skirt fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions and house her State De­part­ment emails on an off-the-books serv­er, even the most loy­al Demo­crat can’t hon­estly an­swer those ques­tions without an in­de­pend­ent vet­ting of her elec­tron­ic cor­res­pond­ence.

Without those emails, we may nev­er be able to fol­low the money. Could that be why she hasn’t coughed up the serv­er?

Dis­clos­ure: I’ve known and re­spec­ted the Clin­tons since the 1980s, when I covered state polit­ics for the Arkan­sas Demo­crat (now the Arkan­sas Demo­crat-Gaz­ette) and the As­so­ci­ated Press. Over the years, they’ve been kind to my fam­ily, and my ca­reer ob­vi­ously be­nefited from their rise. Of all the pub­lic ser­vants I’ve covered since mov­ing to Wash­ing­ton in 1993, none ap­proach the Clin­tons in terms of both strengths and weak­nesses. While I’ve nev­er called them cor­rupt (the White­wa­ter land deal was le­git­im­ate), I can tell you al­most 30 years of stor­ies about their en­ti­tle­ment, out­sized vic­tim­iz­a­tion, and an ag­grav­at­ing be­lief in the ends jus­ti­fy­ing the means.

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton Still Doesn’t Get It)

Which is why I wasn’t sur­prised when vet­er­an Clin­ton chron­icler Todd S. Purdum of Politco com­pared Hil­lary Clin­ton to Richard Nix­on.

Not even Clin­ton’s harshest crit­ics could claim that Server­gate (or Chap­paquadata, or whatever it may come to be called) con­sti­tutes a high crime or mis­de­mean­or. But it does con­note a re­flex­ive war­i­ness about her en­emies—a war­i­ness that some­times seems to bor­der on para­noia—that has long dogged Clin­ton, and that struck at least a few old Nix­on hands as fa­mil­i­ar “…

“There is, of course,” Purdum con­tin­ued, “a bit­ter para­dox in the fact that Clin­ton, as a young staffer on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, ac­tu­ally worked on Nix­on’s im­peach­ment.”

I won­der what a young Hil­lary Clin­ton would think of a private char­ity run by a former U.S. pres­id­ent and a po­ten­tial fu­ture pres­id­ent that col­lec­ted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from coun­tries and com­pan­ies hop­ing to in­flu­ence the pair. Ac­tu­ally, I don’t won­der: She would think it smells.

And yet, a New York de­veloper donated $100,000 to the found­a­tion at about the same time Hil­lary Clin­ton helped se­cure mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­er­al as­sist­ance for the busi­ness­man’s mall pro­ject.

An aide close enough to Bill Clin­ton to be con­sidered a sur­rog­ate son, Doug Band, set up Teneo, a com­pany that New York Times colum­nist Maur­een Dowd calls “a scammy blend of cor­por­ate con­sult­ing, pub­lic re­la­tions, and mer­chant bank­ing.” Band re­cruited cli­ents from the found­a­tion donor list while en­cour­aging oth­ers to donate. “Its mar­ket­ing ma­ter­i­als high­lighted Mr. Band’s re­la­tion­ship with Mr. Clin­ton and the Clin­ton Glob­al Ini­ti­at­ive, where Mr. Band sat on the board of dir­ect­ors through 2011 and re­mains as an ad­visers,” ac­cord­ing to a 2013 New York Times ex­posé.

Money came in. Fa­vors went out. While there is no dir­ect evid­ence of quid pro quo, the found­a­tion and its name­sakes cre­ated this per­cep­tion prob­lem. They own it.

Bill Clin­ton noted Sat­urday that the found­a­tion dis­closes most of its dona­tions, a level of trans­par­ency bey­ond strict leg­al re­quire­ments. Nobody can ar­gue that the found­a­tion doesn’t save lives and do oth­er good deeds. “You’ve got to de­cide when you do this work, wheth­er it will do more good than harm if someone helps you from an­oth­er coun­try,” the former pres­id­ent said.

But there was a reas­on why the Obama White House asked the found­a­tion to stop tak­ing for­eign dona­tions while she served as sec­ret­ary of State. It looks un­eth­ic­al. It may be cor­rupt. And yet, shortly after she left the State De­part­ment to be­gin pres­id­en­tial plan­ning, the found­a­tion opened up the for­eign-money spig­ot.

It nev­er stopped tak­ing money from favored cor­por­a­tions, and re­cently it entered in­to part­ner­ships with “at least six banks that were un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion, in­volved in lit­ig­a­tion, or had been fined by gov­ern­ment agen­cies and reg­u­lat­ors,” ac­cord­ing to a CNN in­vest­ig­a­tion.

What did these com­pan­ies and coun­tries ex­pect in re­turn for their cash? Did the Clin­tons prom­ise any fa­vors? Those are fair ques­tions—not par­tis­an ques­tions and not me­dia “gotcha” ques­tions. The Clin­tons are re­spons­ible for the man­age­ment of their found­a­tion. Hil­lary Clin­ton is re­spons­ible for stash­ing her emails in a secret serv­er. She is run­ning for pres­id­ent. The rest of us should fol­low the money.

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