The conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation (or Our Hypocrisy is not Like Theirs, Part 11)

Longtime readers of the blog know that we have a series here that we like to call “Our Hypocrisy is not Like Theirs.” It’s time for part 11 of that series. If you’ve been following the news lately you know that Republicans have been trying to make hay out of the alleged conflicts of interest related to the Clinton Foundation. As summarized very nicely by the Economist, the issue is this:

Created in 1997, [the Clinton Foundation] is a philanthropic foundation that backs multiple charitable initiatives ranging from economic development in poverty-stricken parts of the world, to fighting climate change, the betterment of lives of women and girls and access to drugs for those who are HIV positive. These are all laudable goals and the charity has won accolades for its impressive work. The problem is that a foundation, which is led by an ex-president and someone who hopes to be elected president by the end of the year, can appear vulnerable to conflicts of interest. One of the reasons that the Clinton Foundation has become such a formidable fund-raising machine is that donors appear to hope to gain access to the corridors of political power with their gifts.

Over the past 15 years, the Clinton Foundation has raised a staggering sum, close to $2 billion, from corporate titans, foreign governments, political donors and other wealthy entities, according to an investigation by the Washington Post. Many of these donors have multiple agendas in addition to their wish to do good. According to the Washington Post, almost half of the major donors who are backing Ready for Hillary, a lobby group promoting her presidential run this year, as well as nearly half of the so-called bundlers, the fundraisers who solicited and pooled her campaign funds in 2008, have given at least $10,000 to the foundation, directly or indirectly through foundations and companies. Donations from banks and other financial institutions account for the largest share of the foundation’s corporate benefactors. Its perhaps most controversial donors are foreign governments or other foreign entities, such as the governments of Oman and Kuwait, which are by law not allowed to give any form of donation to American politicians running for office.

An opinion piece published recently by Doyle McManus for the Los Angeles Times, articulated the concerns that people have about the Clinton foundation and the appearance of conflict of interest.

The first thing you need to know about the Clinton Foundation is that it’s not, contrary to what Donald Trump said last week, “the most corrupt enterprise in political history.” It’s not even close. Nor is it, as Trump also claimed, “Watergate all over again.” The Republican candidate has a gift for hyperbole; he doesn’t know much about history.

But, as with Hillary Clinton’s ongoing email controversy, the foundation stories are still troubling, because they reflect a stubborn unwillingness by the Democratic nominee to listen to her critics – feeding the widespread suspicion among voters that she’s not trustworthy.

The furor is tragic, too, because it has given a bad name to an otherwise successful philanthropic enterprise – one that has helped save millions of lives around the world. Even before Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, it was clear that her family’s charitable enterprise, which depended heavily on donations from foreign governments and corporations, was a potential problem.

“Foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton Foundation as a means to gain favor with the secretary of state,” then-Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) warned at the time. Lugar and other senators urged the foundation to ban all foreign donations, but the Clintons decided not to go that far. Instead, they agreed to clear new foreign donations with the State Department and to disclose all their donors. Their intention, Hillary Clinton said, was “to avoid even the appearance … of a conflict.”

In practice, though, several of the Clinton foundations didn’t comply fully with their own rules until their lapses became public last year. And it’s now clear they failed the “appearance” test too. Emails uncovered thanks to a conservative group’s lawsuit show that Doug Band, who helped create the Clinton Global Initiative, sought access to State Department officials for Clinton Foundation donors.

So these articulated concerns are real concerns, and should not be dismissed lightly. The Clintons, as is their habit, do tend to get defensive whenever questioned about anything, with results that are generally not helpful. But the Republicans really do have an extraordinary kind of amnesia when it comes to their own conflicts of interest, an amnesia that cannot be explained away as just part of ordinary politics. It’s a hypocrisy of the most extraordinary kind. Although we could look at many more issues, today we’re going to focus on just two issues:

1.      Dick Cheney and Halliburton

hypocrisyHalliburton is a multinational corporation focused on oil field services companies, with dual headquarters located in Houston and in Dubai. It employs approximately 70with operations in more than 80 countries. Dick Cheney was the Chairman and CEO of Halliburton in between his stints as Secretary of Defense for Bush 41 and Vice President for Bush 43.

As was reported in the New York Times back in 2004, with respect the assertion of Democrats that Dick Cheney and Halliburton[1] had benefitted improperly from their association with both Bush administration’s, the Times wrote:

Halliburton’s business with the military has grown substantially since Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney took office. The company rose to seventh-largest military contractor in 2003 from 22nd-largest in 2000. … Mr. Cheney’s financial disclosure statements from 2001, 2002 and 2003 show that since becoming vice president-elect, he has received $1,997,525 from the company: $1,451,398 in a bonus deferred from 1999, the rest in deferred salary. He also holds options to buy Halliburton stock. … Halliburton, basically an oil services and engineering company, won a large contract in competitive bidding in 2001 to provide food, housing, fuel and other logistical support for troops in the Middle East. That contract has so far been worth about $5 billion. Pentagon auditors have accused the company of overcharging for food, fuel and other services. For a time the Army considered withholding payments to the company until the billing dispute was resolved, but decided last month to continue reimbursements in full.

In March 2003, Kellogg Brown & Root, Halliburton’s construction and engineering subsidiary, received from the Pentagon what is called a sole-source contract, meaning it was awarded without bidding, to restore and operate Iraqi oil wells. The contract, which was classified when it was awarded just before the invasion of Iraq, could be worth as much as $7 billion. … On the question of Mr. Cheney’s income from Halliburton, officials of the Bush-Cheney campaign said that before entering office in 2001, Mr. Cheney bought an insurance policy that guaranteed a fixed amount of deferred payments from Halliburton each year for five years so that the payments would not depend on the company’s fortunes. The officials also said he had promised to donate to charity any after-tax profits he made from exercising his stock options. These steps are not unusual for corporate executives who enter government. In response to an inquiry from Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported last year that an official’s deferred salary and stock options could amount to “a continuing financial interest” in the company involved.

There is no proof that either Cheney or Halliburton did anything illegal at the time[2], and some of their contracts were awarded through competitive bids.[3] There is also nothing illegal in that activities of the Clinton Foundation. Unlike Halliburton and Dick Cheney, who clearly profited immensely from the deals they struck, the Clinton Foundation is charitable and it, in conjunction with its Global Initiative subsidiary, has done lots of good work, a point that even most Republicans concede. The extent of the conflict involving the Clintons is objectively much less than the obvious and measurable conflicts involving Cheney and Halliburton.

2.      Clarence and Virginia Thomas

Clarence Thomas, for those of you who forget, is the arch-conservative justice of the current United States Supreme Court who replaced legendary civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. Thomas will be forever remembered for the hugely controversial confirmation hearings at which Anita Hill, a former subordinate at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accused him of sexual harassment.[4] In any case, Virginia Thomas, Clarence’s wife, has for a long time been a full-fledged conservative partisan and activist, and her political role has provided plenty of opportunity for conflict of interest for her justice husband. As explained in detail by Mother Jones:

Virginia “Ginni” Thomas is no ordinary Supreme Court spouse. …Over the years, she has enmeshed herself ever more deeply in the world of political advocacy—all the while creating a heap of conflict of interest concerns surrounding her husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. …Conflict of interest issues were first aired during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991, when critics argued that Ginni Thomas’ political work might compromise her husband’s objectivity. At that time, her political resume included stints as a Capitol Hill aide to a Republican congressman; a staffer at the US Chamber of Commerce, where she fought the Family and Medical Leave Act; and as a political appointee at the Labor Department during the first Bush administration. Thomas didn’t leave politics after her husband was confirmed. “I did not give up my First Amendment rights when my husband became a justice of the Supreme Court,” she has said in the past. She would later return to the Hill as a staffer to House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and work for the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. But in those jobs, Thomas kept a relatively low profile.

That changed around the same time that the tea party exploded in American politics, and Thomas became an outspoken member of the movement. In late 2009, Thomas founded the political advocacy group Liberty Central, which would later become a fierce player in the opposition to health care form. Detractors pointed out that Liberty Central was a potential vehicle for people with interests before the Supreme Court to make anonymous donations that might influence her husband. The group was formed with a $500,000 anonymous donation that came as the Supreme Court was considering Citizens United, a case that ultimately resulted in loosening the restrictions on corporate giving to political campaigns. The anonymous donor was later revealed to be Harlan Crow, the Texas real estate developer. Crow was also a friend of Clarence Thomas’, and he was later linked to a scandal involving the justice’s failure to publicly disclose gifts from the developer and trips aboard his private jet. …In January 2011, the good-government group Common Cause asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Justice Thomas should have recused himself from Citizens United based on his wife’s role at Liberty Central. …Thomas ultimately stepped down from Liberty Central, and the group merged with the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, a nonprofit started by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich. … But she continued to be deeply involved with the opposition to Obamacare. She formed Liberty Consulting, which focused on health care issues, and, while never registering as a lobbyist, she began visiting members of Congress as an “ambassador” from the tea party movement. Due to her outspoken anti-Obamacare advocacy, and the fact that she was earning a living in connection with it, liberal activists called on Justice Thomas to recuse himself from ruling on matters related to Obamacare. He declined to do so and later joined the minority in voting to overturn the health care law, as he was widely expected to do.

As a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas is not a member of the executive branch. The comparison to Dick Cheny, Halliburton and the Clintons is not an apples-to-apples comparison. And the financial amounts involved are also not of the same magnitude as those other matters. But it speaks to the right’s ongoing amnesia with respect to conflict of interest issues. The conservatives are so ready to throw mud at the Clintons while so easily forgetting their own transgressions. The Democrats – who, as I’ve repeatedly observed, have no balls – continue to let them get away with it. Oh, they bray about the Republican transgressions from time to time, but have had a great deal of trouble establishing the false equivalency between Republican and Democratic “scandals.”


[1] There have been plenty of other controversies involving Halliburton, including at least explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform; allegations of corruption in Nigeria; repeated violations of environmental laws and regulations; the gang-rape of Jamie Leigh Jones; and the repeated restatements of compensation by their executives.

[2] For a more detailed analysis of the contacts between Halliburton, Cheney and the Bush Administration, and their apparent conflict of interest, see this publication from a professor at Cornell University.

[3] With respect to the sole source contract, the General Accounting Office agreed with the Bush administration’s contention that it would have been “impractical” to have open bidding on the oil wells contract since Halliburton already had an “established position” in Iraq, and making the contract public before the invasion could have compromised the American war plans.

[4] The Thomas hearings are a full episode or two of conservative hypocrisy that should really be explored more thoroughly at a future occasion.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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