During the closing session of the Clinton Global Initiative’s 2013 annual meeting, Bill Clinton called to the stage a former rival named Hassan Abdullah Al-Thawadi.
Three years earlier, Al-Thawadi, a young Qatari businessman, had led his country’s successful effort to host the 2022 soccer World Cup, beating out, among others, a U.S. bid led by Clinton. Al-Thawadi and his countrymen had rejoiced after they were awarded the tournament in an auditorium in Zurich, while elsewhere in the room Clinton and his team stewed.
Allegations that Qatar had bribed its way to the victory soon emerged, prompting an internal investigation by soccer’s governing body that had been going on for more than a year by the time of the CGI event.
At the gathering, Clinton stood on stage as Al-Thawadi talked with pride about plans to use technology developed for Qatari soccer stadiums to cool greenhouses and feed the hungry.
“We bid on the belief that the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will act as a catalyst for positive change in Qatar, in the Middle East as well as beyond,” Al-Thawadi said in New York that September day, before posing for a picture with Clinton and another Qatari official, according to a video of the event posted online.
For the Qataris, the moment offered a touch of Clinton-blessed legitimacy amid a brewing controversy. For the Clinton Foundation, it came with a major donation.
A foundation official said the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee headed by Al-Thawadi “sponsored” the 2013 CGI event, a status that generally requires a donation of at least $250,000.
But many sponsors pay more, particularly those who wish to share the stage with the former president, according to several people familiar with the foundation’s practices. A foundation spokesman said sponsors are featured on stage based on the merit of their charitable commitments and not the size of their donations.
The Qatar donation has drawn attention amid a burgeoning international soccer scandal. Last week, federal prosecutors in the United States charged 14 people with bribery, fraud and other charges, alleging that the sport has been rife with corruption for two decades. Swiss authorities announced they are also specifically investigating Qatar’s bid.
The donation from the Qatari committee serves as the latest example of the willingness of the Clinton Foundation to accept big-dollar contributions from controversial and, sometimes, politically problematic sources. Donors have included foreign governments, Wall Street banks and some of the world’s richest business tycoons.
As the foundation’s practices have come under increased scrutiny, Bill Clinton has defended accepting money from imperfect actors. The way the foundation thinks about it, Clinton has said, is not whether a potential donor has done something questionable in one area, but whether there’s an intent to do something positive with the foundation.
“What you find is that you’ve got to decide when you do this work, whether it’ll do more good than harm if someone helps you from another country,” Bill Clinton said at a foundation event in March. “My theory about all of this is disclose everything and then let people make their judgments.”
The charity also explored a relationship with FIFA, the international soccer governing organization at the center of the scandal. Foundation officials confirmed there were unsuccessful negotiations in 2006 about forging a major partnership between FIFA and the foundation to promote HIV/AIDs awareness around the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, with Bill Clinton as a spokesman.
Ultimately, FIFA gave a relatively modest donation of between $50,000 and $100,000 — fees to attend CGI in 2009 and 2010, foundation officials have said. Clinton was working on the U.S. bid in 2010.
The foundation’s financial practices are now emerging as a political complication as Hillary Clinton begins her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that half of all Americans disapprove of the way Hillary Clinton has handled questions about the charity.
While a number of controversial donations came during the years that Bill Clinton headed the organization alone, the Qatari committee’s involvement in CGI came in the months after Hillary Clinton stepped down as secretary of state and joined the foundation’s board.
According to the foundation’s Web site, which lists donors based on the amounts of their total contributions organized by ranges, the Qatari committee gave between $250,000 and $500,000. The Persian Gulf nation, known for seeking to build alliances in Washington by giving money to think tanks and other influential organizations, has given the Clinton Foundation between $1 million and $5 million over the years, according to the charity’s Web site.
The potential problems of associating with the Qatar World Cup effort were clear well before the foundation’s 2013 event. In May 2011, five months after Qatar won the right to host the cup, members of the British parliament alleged that some on FIFA’s executive committee had been paid millions to award the bid to Qatar, and British media had aggressively investigated the issue.
And in July 2012, FIFA appointed former U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia to probe the bid process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, an investigation that was underway at the time of Qatar’s sponsorship of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Garcia submitted his report in September 2014. But FIFA has refused to publish the findings in their entirety, instead releasing only a summary saying that Qatar and Russia did nothing wrong. Garcia has said the summary was “incomplete” and “erroneous.”
This week, FIFA’s longtime president Sepp Blatter resigned, and people familiar with the investigation have indicated he is a subject of the U.S. probe.
Allegations of bribery weren’t the only problems facing the Qataris at the time of the CGI event. That same week, the Guardian newspaper published an expose of labor conditions at World Cup construction sites in Qatar, concluding that dozens of migrant Nepalese workers had died that summer alone — and estimating that thousands would die before the projects were finished.
Clinton Foundation officials said that donors should not be barred from philanthropy because they face criticism.
“Many major institutions — financial, media, industrial or otherwise — have been subject to allegations at some point, and that alone shouldn’t preclude these organizations, which are capable of significant and positive impact, from contributing to improving lives,” the officials said via e-mail.
The Qataris have said they are committed to safe working conditions for laborers and have said that no workers have died during World Cup construction. They have also rejected allegations of bribery, with Al-Thawadi saying in a February interview on Al Jazeera that the criticism of his country showed a “clear bias.”
A representative of the Qatar World Cup committee said a spokesman was not available to comment for this article.
Stephen Russell, the coordinator of Playfair Qatar, a U.K.-based labor group urging the Gulf state to improve working conditions, said the country has used charitable giving such as donations to the Clinton Foundation to try to earn international legitimacy.
“We compare it to medieval kings, building churches before they die to try to get into heaven,” he said.
Russell called on the Clintons and the foundation to speak out about workers’ rights in Qatar. “It’s all very well and good to have taken their money — but don’t let it buy your silence,” he said.
In response, Brian Fallon, a campaign spokesman for Hillary Clinton, said her record demonstrated a willingness to challenge Middle East regimes.
Fallon pointed to a 2012 report about Qatar by the Clinton-led State Department, which found that the country’s laws did not provide adequate collective bargaining and other rights for workers.
Fallon also pointed to a 2011 trip to Qatar in which then-Secretary Clinton said Arab leaders risked “sinking into the sand” unless they restructured their political and economic systems.
A foundation spokesman highlighted remarks Bill Clinton made supporting migrant worker rights at the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University in a graduation speech there in 2014.
Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton’s spokesmen specifically addressed the question of labor conditions as Qatar readies for the 2022 World Cup.
Though his position was officially ceremonial, Bill Clinton threw himself into the American effort to win the World Cup. The former president hosted a 2010 meeting at the office of the Clinton Foundation in Harlem for the star-studded bid committee, which included soccer star Mia Hamm, actor Morgan Freeman and director Spike Lee.
When world leaders gathered in Zurich to make their final pitches, it was Clinton — along with then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who met with key FIFA members, one by one, in a hotel suite the night before the vote. And Clinton made the closing argument as part of the U.S. team’s elaborate, formal 40-minute presentation, where he was introduced by U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati as “an American citizen but, in my view, a global treasure,” according to a video of the presentation posted online.
Clinton spent about half of his remarks describing the work of his foundation across the world and how soccer could be used to advance similar goals.
“Everywhere, I have seen the power of football, to lift people up and bring them together across the lines that would otherwise divide them,” he said, praising FIFA as a “great organization” that had embarked on a “social responsibility mission.”
When Qatar was selected, some involved with the U.S. effort were immediately suspicious, according to people familiar with the discussions. Planning a major summertime soccer tournament in a country where daytime temperatures in those months reach or exceed 120 degrees seemed to make little sense.
Three years later, standing next to Clinton on the stage at CGI, Al-Thawadi announced that the Qatar host committee would partner with the Qatar National Food Security Programme to improve food production in arid regions of the world.
It was just the kind of grand gesture — private groups publicly committing to charitable causes — that Clinton envisioned when he founded CGI. Though such projects are carried out by companies and individuals, the Clinton Foundation tracks the commitments for years and reports on whether their lofty goals have been fulfilled.
Unlike most of the thousands of commitments listed on the foundation’s Web site, the page displaying the Qatar partners’ project does not include an exact amount of money to be spent or any progress reports.
A foundation spokesman said the commitment is “well underway” and said the Qataris have launched the Global Dryland Alliance with other nations to work on the problem of food insecurity in arid regions.
Tom Hamburger, Alice Crites and Scott Clement contributed to this report.