Bill Clinton was planning a charity trip to Latin America and needed a big plane.
That 2005 trip was the start of an intense, mutually beneficial friendship — one that has helped propel the Clinton Foundation into a global giant and established Giustra’s reputation as an international philanthropist while helping him build connections in countries where his business was expanding.
Giustra has since committed more than $100 million to the work of the Clinton Foundation, becoming one of the largest individual donors to the family’s charities.
Clinton has also gained regular transportation, borrowing Giustra’s plane 26 times for foundation business since 2005, including 13 trips in which the two men traveled together. The numbers on Clinton’s use of the plane, never previously reported, were provided by a spokeswoman for Giustra.
The relationship has gained attention as Hillary Rodham Clinton has launched her presidential campaign amid questions about whether the Clinton Foundation has served as an avenue for wealthy interests to gain entree to a powerful family.
Giustra, 57, a Vancouver, B.C.-based mogul whose eclectic business interests include founding Lionsgate Entertainment and investing in gold mines and an olive oil company, has come to symbolize a relatively new but substantial category of Clinton backers: foreign donors who are not legally eligible to contribute to U.S. political candidates but grew close to the Clintons through the charity.
In a rare interview, Giustra told The Washington Post recently that his friendship with Bill Clinton has grown entirely out of their shared interest in philanthropy — not business.
“I have one very specific reason I have a relationship with Bill Clinton: I admire what he does, and I want to be part of it,” Giustra said. “But I’ve never asked him for a damn thing.”
But Giustra’s donations, and others from his friends in the international mining business, are becoming a factor in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Last week, the Clinton Foundation acknowledged that an affiliated Canadian charity founded in 2007 by Giustra kept its donors secret, despite a 2008 ethics agreement with the Obama administration promising to reveal the New York-based foundation’s donors.
The foundation said the arrangement conformed with Canadian law. But it also opened a way for anonymous donors, including foreign executives with business pending before the Hillary Clinton-led State Department, to direct money to the Clinton Foundation.
For Giustra, the partnership with Bill Clinton provided an introduction to the world of international philanthropy at the highest levels — a feel-good, reputation-enhancing effort that he said he finds more personally satisfying than amassing wealth.
At the same time, Giustra continued to expand his business empire, closing some of the biggest deals of his career in the same countries where he traveled with Clinton.
In one case, he finalized a massive transaction to buy uranium mines in Kazakhstan days after dining with that nation’s president, along with Clinton and about 50 other guests. In another, a Colombian oil operation he helped form received valuable drilling rights in deals involving a state-owned oil company that went through a few years after he met the Colombian president through the Clinton Foundation.
Giustra said government approval was not required in either case.
‘We hit it off right away’
Giustra and Bill Clinton first met on June 5, 2005, after Giustra’s plane touched down at the White Plains, N.Y., airport — the closest airfield to the Clinton home in Chappaqua — to pick up the former president and ferry him to Arkansas and then on to Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.
The airplane quickly became a core element of the new friendship between business mogul and political icon.
The MD-87 aircraft is a full-size passenger jetliner with comfortable seating areas and a private bedroom. The doors have gold-colored fixtures, and an art collection hangs on the walls.
Members of Bill Clinton’s inner circle are constantly on the lookout for private aircraft to carry the ex-president and his team with the security and efficiency required by someone of his stature, according to several people familiar with the process.
Giustra said he and Clinton got along immediately.
Clinton spotted the biography of Julius Caesar that Giustra was carrying. He began talking about the book, quoting whole passages of it from memory, Giustra recalled.
“That kind of broke the ice,” Giustra said. “Then he asked me about my background. He asked me how I grew up. So I started telling him my life story.”
Giustra said the two related to each other because of their similarly humble beginnings.
“No money,” he said, referring to his childhood. “I think we both worked very hard to achieve what we wanted to achieve. I think he kind of respected that, and we hit it off right away.”
From that first four-day trip to a nine-day visit to Africa in 2006 to a three-day trip to Colombia last summer, the two men came to know each other well.
All the while, Giustra kept an eye on business.
He finalized the Kazakhstan deal in September 2005 after joining Clinton in Almaty, the former capital, for the launch of a foundation health initiative endorsed by the country’s iron-fisted president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The $500 million purchase of Kazakh uranium mines, among the most productive in the world, followed months of negotiations, Giustra said, insisting that it was finalized without any help from the Clintons.
Giustra had flown there days before Bill Clinton's arrival, and the transaction received preliminary approval days after Clinton left — provoking questions about whether Clinton had assisted. The connection was first reported in 2008 by the New York Times.
Giustra said Clinton had “zero” to do with the deal, saying it was “about to close anyway” when the two men met in Almaty.
Clinton has said that he was aware of Giustra’s pending purchase while in Kazakhstan but did not discuss it or do anything to help its progress.
That account is supported by a longtime Clinton aide, Amed Khan, who said that he was at Clinton’s side during every meeting with Kazakh officials and that a discussion of Giustra’s business “never happened.”
Giustra said it was “beyond ludicrous” to suggest that Clinton engaged on the deal, in part because the former president has very little interest in business.
“You have to understand something about Bill Clinton. He doesn’t care about that stuff,” Giustra said. “His eyes would glaze over.”
Following the deal, Giustra’s new company, UrAsia, was considered one of Canada’s hottest new mining ventures. The next year, Giustra made a $32.7 million donation to the Clinton Foundation.
In 2007, Giustra sold UrAsia to a company called Uranium One, chaired by an old friend, Ian Telfer. Giustra, who had retained stock in the company, sold nearly all of his interests shortly after that. Still, Giustra and Telfer are a focus of the soon-to-be-released book "Clinton Cash" because of their role in the firm, which several years later was sold to a Russian state-owned company.
The sale gave the Russians control of uranium deposits around the world, including several mines in the United States. That sale was reviewed by the State Department and other agencies at the time Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Some Republicans have charged that this was a conflict of interest, though aides to Clinton have said she did not personally intervene in the approval process and showed no favoritism toward foundation donors.
A few weeks after returning from Kazakhstan in 2005, Giustra attended his first meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.
There, he was introduced to the leader of another country where he had business interests: Álvaro Uribe of Colombia.
Giustra’s interests in Colombia included gold mines, port construction, timber and, more recently, oil production. Some of the companies he joined or formed have drawn protests from environmental, human rights and labor groups. Giustra said he was not aware of complaints against the companies and has already sold his interest in most of them.
Giustra and Uribe were observed chatting with great intensity during a break between panel discussions at the 2005 meeting. Since then, all three men — Uribe, Clinton and Giustra — have been in multiple meetings together in New York, Bogota and the Clinton family home in Chappaqua.
In 2007, Giustra played a key role in forming a fast-growing oil company operating in Colombia, Pacific Rubiales Energy. It burst onto the scene that year by purchasing control of an oil production firm that worked closely with the Colombian state oil company, which Uribe had recently privatized. It also signed a pipeline deal with that firm and then won the right to explore for oil in environmentally sensitive areas along the Colombian coast.
Aspects of Giustra's ties to Colombia are discussed in "Clinton Cash," the book by conservative author Peter Schweizer due out this week, and were reported last month by the International Business Times. Some information from those accounts and additional details of Giustra's activities were confirmed through independent reporting by The Post.
The Colombia connections of the Clintons and their patron, Giustra, were evident in June 2010.
Bill Clinton and Giustra had flown in together on the businessman’s jet, while Hillary Clinton had arrived for an official visit as secretary of state.
The three dined together in Bogota. The next morning, Bill Clinton met privately with Uribe at the presidential house.
A few hours later, Hillary Clinton held her own meeting with the Colombian leader. In a subsequent televised interview, she announced that she was inclined to support a much-sought-after free-trade deal with Colombia — a reversal in position since her 2008 presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton was adhering to Obama administration policy. Her campaign press secretary, Brian Fallon, pointed out that “then-Secretary Clinton’s statements in support of the deal reflected the President’s position.”
Nevertheless, top Colombian leaders and their business allies were thrilled with the news that day from Bogota.
Giustra said the free-trade deal did not come up during his dinner with the Clintons. He said his relationship with Hillary Clinton is cordial but not especially close. “We talk about my kids. We talk about how lovely Vancouver is,” he said.
A commitment to charity
Officials with the Giustra partnership say it has funded thousands of cataract surgeries in Peru and provided meals for low-income children. Recently, Giustra said the effort has focused on helping people in Colombia and other developing countries find markets for goods they can make or grow at home, resulting in permanent jobs for people in poverty.
Back home in Vancouver, people who have worked with Giustra on charitable efforts describe him in near-saintly terms, saying he is sincere when he says he became involved in the Clinton Foundation to alleviate poverty around the world.
Among the local efforts he funds is an organization that provides mentoring for at-risk teenage boys in British Columbia. It once helped put a former gang member through college on the condition that the boy meet with Giustra every few weeks to provide updates on his progress, said Jim Crescenzo, a Vancouver teacher who helped found the program.
While Giustra had been involved in Canadian charitable efforts since the 1990s, in his own telling, it was meeting Bill Clinton in 2005 that caused his interest to “explode.”
“Here’s a guy who’s an ex-president who could choose to do whatever — play golf or whatever,” he said.
“He works very hard, and most of his work has to do with humanitarian work.”
Giustra said he came to realize that wealth is temporary and that only through philanthropy can people make a mark on the world.
“I think any wealthy person has to think, ‘Do I really deserve to have this much money?’ ” he said.
A self-professed food fanatic, Giustra has also launched his own olive oil company. And he is the major investor behind the urban foodie magazine Modern Farmer, which launched in 2013 and can be found at the checkout line at Whole Foods.
The second edition featured an interview with a prominent subject: former president Bill Clinton.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.