The Clinton Conflict

Sunday, December 21, 2008

THERE IS no getting around the uniquely difficult issues posed by the dual roles of Hillary Rodham Clinton as future secretary of state and former president Bill Clinton as the head of a foundation that raises money from foreign governments. Mr. Clinton's foundation does valuable work around the world on issues such as HIV/AIDS, climate change and economic development. Foreign governments provide critical support; Australia, Ireland, Great Britain, Sweden, Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and the Dominican Republic, among others, support the foundation's HIV/AIDS initiative, while Australia contributes to the climate change program. But Mr. Clinton's good works also fall squarely within the future domain of Ms. Clinton, and his commitment to continue to raise money for these programs while his wife is in office presents inevitable opportunities for conflict of interest and other difficulties down the road. Ms. Clinton and the future Barack Obama administration would be better served if Mr. Clinton were to direct his prodigious energies elsewhere for the duration of her service.

The incoming administration secured the disclosure of past donors to the Clinton presidential library and foundation; this was an important and necessary step. Under the memorandum of understanding negotiated between the two camps, the names of future donors will also be released, albeit only on an annual basis, which seems a rather languorous schedule in this day and age. In addition, new donations from foreign governments will be scrutinized by government ethics officers. Countries that simply re-up existing pledges will be exempt from this review; only if a foreign country chooses to "increase materially its commitment" or a new country signs on will the foundation "share such countries and the circumstances of the anticipated contribution with the State Department designated agency ethics official for review."

But however worthy the cause or uncontroversial the foreign government, it strikes us that such fundraising by the former president presents an unavoidable conflict. What is the standard for the ethics official to apply? Doesn't spurning a proffered donation from a foreign government risk creating its own diplomatic problems? What happens when Secretary Clinton, visiting Country X to press for, say, a climate change agreement, is informed by the prime minister that he's just written her husband a $10 million check for that cause? What about gifts from foreign governments seeking trade concessions or approval to purchase military equipment? Even if Ms. Clinton is not influenced by gifts to her husband's charity, the appearance of a conflict is unavoidable. The better approach would be to allow existing commitments to go forward but to forswear any new ones.

Moreover, the memorandum of understanding does not appear to contemplate any prior review of contributions by foreign individuals or corporations, or by U.S. companies or individuals with overseas entanglements. So consider -- because it already happened -- the case of a wealthy investor who is seeking business opportunities in, say, Kazakhstan. He gives millions to the Clinton foundation, visits the country with the former president and obtains the sought-after contract. No one in the Obama administration will vet such a gift in advance; the public will learn of it only with the yearly disclosure. The new administration is buying itself a heap of potential trouble with this arrangement.

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