MARRAKESH, Morocco — Bill and Chelsea Clinton are convening foreign leaders here at a lush golf resort set in a palm grove this week to showcase their foundation’s charitable work. But the conference also highlights new controversies engulfing the Clinton family’s vast philanthropic enterprises as Hillary Rodham Clinton begins her presidential campaign.
A liberal human rights organization and several Republican lawmakers, for instance, are criticizing the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation for accepting donations from a Moroccan government-owned mining company, whose seven-figure sponsorship of this week’s gathering came amid growing scrutiny of foreign-government contributions to the charity.
Meanwhile, some blue-chip companies that have long provided large donations to the Clinton Foundation are pulling back or reassessing their support.
An Exxon Mobil spokesman said this week that the company has decided not to be involved in the Clinton Global Initiative this year. The oil company said its decision was unrelated to recent scrutiny of the foundation, but this is the first year it has not been a sponsor since 2009. Other sponsors, including Monsanto, are reevaluating their partnerships.
This week’s flashy Morocco conference — a first-ever Africa and Middle East spinoff of the flagship CGI held each September in New York — underscores the foundation’s controversial fundraising practices, which have become a potential anchor on Hillary Clinton’s nascent campaign.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Chelsea Clinton, the foundation’s vice chair, defended its work and suggested that scrutiny was politically motivated.
“My family is no stranger to scrutiny, and neither is the foundation,” she said. “It has been under intense scrutiny since inception. When you mix together the higher level of scrutiny around the foundation and then the political dimension, I’m not surprised.”
The Morocco conference offers the latest examples of the Clinton Foundation accepting money from foreign entities. The event is sponsored by an array of global corporations, including the state-owned Office Cherifien des Phosphates, or OCP, which has given between $1 million and $5 million overall to the foundation and whose sponsorship of the Morocco conference was first reported by Politico.
Human rights advocates — including several members of Congress — have criticized the company’s mining operations in the Western Sahara territory because they say that OCP does not have the consent of the indigenous population there.
The Moroccan government has disputed such charges. Nonetheless, Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) wrote the Clinton Foundation last month urging it to refuse the Moroccan contribution, citing human rights and fair-trade concerns.
“This donation is an example of a blatant conflict of interest” for the Clintons, Pitts said in a statement. “Morocco would like nothing more than having a possible future First Family condone its illegal exploitation of natural resources.”
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights has also expressed concern about the company’s operations in Western Sahara and the message the company conveys through cooperation with organizations like the Clinton Foundation.
“OCP’s operations in Western Sahara are only appropriate under international law if they are acting in the best interests of the people of Western Sahara, and right now they are not,” said David McKean, a senior program officer at the center. “The fact that OCP carries out its operations in Western Sahara so publicly seems intended to send the message that they feel they can do so with impunity.”
Craig Minassian, spokesman for the Clinton Foundation, referred questions about the alleged violations to representatives of the company.
Talal Zouaoui, a company spokesman, said contrary to the complaints of activists, the phosphate mining operation is closely connected to the local community. All profits from that mine are reinvested in the plant and the surrounding area, he said.
Other sponsors of the Morocco event mirror the kinds of companies that have backed the Clinton Foundation for years — foreign companies with significant holdings and powerful CEOs. They include two of Morocco’s largest financial institutions, the Attijariwafa Bank and the BMCE Group, which is led by Othman Benjelloun, who ranks as Morocco’s richest man.
Other money comes from Akwa Group, a Moroccan conglomerate that focuses on oil and gas, and Channel IT, a telecom company founded in Nigeria that has extended its reach to 19 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Channel IT — which hosted a welcome reception for CGI attendees Tuesday in Marrakesh — is led by wealthy entrepreneur Bassim Haidar, a regular at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, who has signed on with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and bills himself as “Lebanon’s First Astronaut.”
With Hillary Clinton running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, scrutiny of her family foundation’s finances has become politicized. The Clinton campaign is aggressively attacking a new book, “Clinton Cash,” released Tuesday by conservative writer Peter Schweizer, which focuses on the nexus between the Clintons’ political lives and their philanthropic enterprises.
Over the past week, Bill and Chelsea Clinton toured four African countries with a delegation of billionaires, lobbyists and business executives who have given generously to the Clinton Foundation and now are raising money for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, blurring the line between politics and philanthropy.
In the Post interview, Chelsea Clinton dismissed the suggestion that donors gave to the foundation — and came along on the Africa trip — to curry favor with her parents.
“What people who choose to partner with us, whether it’s in a financial capacity or a programmatic capacity, expect to get is the work that we’ve seen on this trip,” she said during the visit to Kenya. “They expect to make a difference in stopping elephant poaching. They expect to make a difference in expanding secondary education for girls.”
Chelsea Clinton added: “Whenever I have had a conversation with anyone, it’s always about the work. I’ve never had anyone talk to me about my parents in a political capacity for a foundation program.”
Bill Clinton was defensive to the point of seeming testy in an interview with NBC News this week, saying the foundation had never done anything “knowingly inappropriate” when accepting donations from foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia.
For years, companies and wealthy individuals, as well as foreign governments, have clamored to be associated with the high-powered CGI conference in New York or its spinoff events.
But Monsanto, a multinational agricultural company, is weighing whether to continue to sponsor CGI. “As with all of our strategic partnerships and collaborations, we continually assess their value to ensure we are investing in opportunities that will have the greatest positive benefits for society,” Monsanto spokesman Tyson Pruitt said.
Spokesmen for two other previous CGI sponsors, Samsung and Deutsche Bank, refused to say whether they would sponsor the conference again this fall.
Minassian said he was not aware of an exodus of sponsors. “We have not seen that,” he said, and he called reports of budget troubles “not accurate.”
Chelsea Clinton said many employees have been confused by the scrutiny.
“When you look at the 2,200 people who work at the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative, it would be disingenuous to say it hasn’t affected people,” she said. “But it’s affected people insofar as they don’t understand why the world isn’t more interested in the work that they’re doing.”
Republicans have harshly criticized the foundation for accepting millions in donations from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. In response, the Clinton Foundation recently announced it would restrict donations from foreign governments except six Western nations.
The foundation also canceled a planned CGI conference this summer in Athens, which was to focus on economic and social challenges in the Mediterranean region.
Plans continue for CGI America, a domestic-themed conference that Bill and Chelsea Clinton are hosting June 8-10 in Denver that will feature Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, and Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan (D).
After leaving the White House, Bill Clinton founded CGI, intending to create a new model for philanthropy in which he would leverage connections built in policies to play matchmaker between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. At each conference, corporate leaders get to mingle with world leaders, but they also make public commitments to fund targeted charitable programs. Clinton Foundation officials then monitor their progress in fulfilling the pledges.
Some CGI supporters said they are proudly standing by the annual gathering. Richard Brown, the president of the Starkey Foundation, which helps provide hearing aids to those who cannot afford them, including many people in Africa, said: “We have witnessed CGI’s good work throughout the world and have committed our support for 2015.”
Here in Marrakesh, CGI attendees checking in at the Palmeraie Palace, the luxury resort hosting the three-day conference, said they hoped the spotlight would shift to their charitable work.
“I feel that we are above politics,” said Patricia Wyatt, president of Innovation:Africa, a U.S.-based group that tries to bring Israeli technologies, such as solar and drip irrigation systems, to rural African communities.
But other attendees see the Morocco conference as an opportunity to make high-level connections. Faruk Taban, president of the Washington-based Turkic American Alliance, said he flew to Marrakesh to meet African business leaders and persuade them to become active in his group — and said that Bill Clinton’s role as convener “obviously was a big motivation to come.”
“This is a networking event,” Taban said. “We try to establish connections and get the correct leverage to do our activities.”
Helderman and Hamburger reported from Washington. Kevin Sieff in Kenya contributed to this report.