By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Bill Clinton's book "Giving" devotes a great deal of space to the charitable habits of the world's wealthiest inhabitants, and it details some of his own efforts on behalf of AIDS patients and victims of natural calamities.
But it was only on Friday afternoon, when his wife's presidential campaign released family tax returns for the past eight years, that the world got a glimpse at how he and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have managed the tough kitchen-table decisions about how to parcel out their own wealth -- including the $6.3 million Bill Clinton received as his "Giving" advance.
After earning more than $109 million over eight years, the Clintons took tax write-offs for $10.2 million in charitable contributions. In most of those years, that money was donated to the Clinton Family Foundation, and a portion was distributed to charitable causes.
The family foundation is one of several philanthropic groups that bear the former president's name. But unlike the New York-based William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, which has directed more than $10 billion in corporate money and resources toward slowing the spread of AIDS, addressing climate change, and reducing hunger and poverty, the family foundation is a far smaller and more personal operation.
This charity is based at the Clintons' Chappaqua, N.Y., home. Bill Clinton serves as its president, Hillary Clinton as secretary and treasurer, and daughter Chelsea as a director. None takes compensation.
Between 2001 and 2006, the years for which tax records are available, the family put nearly $6 million into the foundation. The Clintons took a tax write-off for that money even though the foundation gave away less than half that amount -- about $2.5 million. A Clinton campaign official said that trend did not continue in 2007 -- the family moved $3 million through the foundation to other charities.
Paul Caron, a tax expert at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, said the Clintons did not take full advantage of the loophole that allows taxpayers to capitalize on exemptions even when the money is not distributed. The family foundation was legally required to give away 5 percent of its money to qualify for tax-exempt status, Caron said.
Despite the former president's global charitable work, the couple, it turns out, are conventional givers. They directed money to their Arkansas church, the colleges and graduate schools they attended, their local volunteer fire departments, and causes that include the American Heart Association, New York Public Radio and Amnesty International.
In recent years, there were gifts that generated good will in ways that were potentially helpful to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Hillary Clinton, for instance, held a news conference to announce that the family foundation had given $100,000 to a South Carolina library last July, the day after she appeared at a presidential debate in the state. The library was named for Marian Wright Edelman, one of her longtime friends and mentors. South Carolina was host to an early primary contest.
The family foundation also gave $25,000 to support the McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service in Mitchell, S.D., in early 2007. Later in the year the center's eponym, the former Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern, said he would endorse Clinton for president.
"It was the furthest thought when I decided to endorse Hillary last October," McGovern said yesterday.
The Clintons also gave $5,000 to the Jon Michael Moore Trauma Center at West Virginia University, which was named for the late grandson of Hillary Clinton's Senate colleague, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). Byrd, a superdelegate, has not yet endorsed a candidate for president.
The Clintons' giving as a percentage of their income was comparable to President Bush's in 2006; both gave away about 10 percent of what they earned. Hillary Clinton's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and his wife, Michelle, earned $991,296 that year and gave away $60,307, or about 6 percent. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has not released his tax returns.
Trevor Neilson, president of the Global Philanthropy Group, which advises wealthy clients on philanthropic strategy, said he is not surprised by the Clintons' approach to charity.
"The most important asset that Bill Clinton has is not his personal checkbook," Neilson said. "It's his ability to create sweeping change by getting people to do things that they don't want to do for the good of the world."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.