Hillary Clinton’s new foundation role has obvious political benefits. She can engage influential leaders across various industries and activist constituencies with an ambitious agenda of good works and nonpartisan causes.
It also allows her and her husband to raise unlimited funds, free of the limitations and disclosure requirements under campaign finance laws. Lindsey said the foundation likely would continue to publicly disclose its donors annually, something it agreed to do when Clinton became secretary of state in 2009.
Michael Meehan, an adviser to former senator John F. Kerry during the Democrat’s 2004 presidential campaign, said the foundation is “an ideal place” for Clinton to be while contemplating a run. “The foundation provides the advantages of incumbency without the downsides,” he said.
Despite the fact that the endowment campaign has been launched while no Clintons are serving in public office, it has been difficult to avoid political skirmishing. Hillary Clinton’s new perch at the foundation already has revealed potential downsides. Critics have questioned whether former aides to both Clintons may have benefited financially based on their association with the family.
When the Clinton Global Initiative met in Chicago in June, Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton intimate who sits on the foundation’s board and is the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia, organized a gubernatorial fundraising event nearby that featured Bill Clinton and CGI attendees.
Suggestions of back-scratching and a lack of financial discipline at the Clinton Foundation has produced some scrutiny recently, including a New York Times story that described efforts by Chelsea Clinton to introduce more rigorous fiscal management.
Bill Clinton subsequently defended his foundation, which has been professionalizing its operations as well as its fundraising strategy, led by development director Dennis Cheng.
Enemies became allies
The scrutiny is sure to continue as long as Hillary Clinton remains a potential presidential candidate. Some major donors cautioned against any blurring of the lines between the foundation’s nonprofit work and Clinton’s political aspirations.
“The two have to be carefully separated,” said Lewis B. Cullman, a businessman and philanthropist who has given more than $500,000 to the foundation. “If Hillary’s going to use the foundation as an entree to raising money for her campaign, I don’t think that would be very good.”
The argument that the Clinton Foundation’s work transcends politics is made by some one-time Clinton political enemies who are now boosters of the charitable organization. The prime example may be Christopher W. Ruddy, founder of the conservative Web site NewsMax, who in the 1990s promoted a conspiracy theory about the death of former Clinton White House adviser Vince Foster.
Since then, Ruddy has given more than $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He traveled with the former president to Africa last year and, in an interview, hailed Clinton’s work as “good for the world and for America.”
Another conservative, William F. Austin, said he “couldn’t imagine voting for Hillary.” But the founder and chief executive of a major hearing aid manufacturer, whose nonprofit foundation distributes hearing devices in third-world countries, has given between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He said he is in talks to be a significant funder of the endowment.
“When I met Bill Clinton, the first thing he did was challenge me to do more,” Austin said. “I said, ‘I’m flat out; I’m using all my time,’ and without blinking he said that wasn’t good enough and I had to find a way to leverage myself.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.