The Clinton Foundation, long overshadowed as a campaign issue, is in the spotlight and likely to remain a billion-dollar question mark there.
The operation has done countless acts of good, helping millions get HIV/AIDS treatment and delivering healthier food to schools, for example.
But it financed that work in part with tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments, including some that mistreat women and gays. Watchdog groups have challenged it to open its books, without success. And now bipartisan voices – from Donald Trump on the right to Bernie Sanders on the left – are questioning whether foreign donors ponied up the big checks expecting something in return should former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton become the next president of the U.S.
“She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund, doing favors for oppressive regimes and many others, and really, many, many others, in exchange for cash pure and simple, folks,” Trump said Wednesday in a blistering attack on Clinton. “They totally own her and that will never change . . . including if she ever became president, God help us.”
Moments after Trump used the foundation as exhibit A for calling Clinton “maybe the most corrupt person” to seek the presidency, the Republican National Committee followed up with documents accusing the foundation of being funded by foreign governments with poor records on women’s and gay rights and accusing her of making deals for donations while running the State Department.
Sanders also has criticized the foreign donations to the foundation, which until recently have not received the same level of attention as Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state.
“Do I have a problem when a sitting secretary of state and a foundation run by her husband collects many, many dollars from foreign governments, governments which are dictatorships? Yeah, I do have a problem with that. Yeah, I do,” Sanders told CNN on June 5.
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said the foundation had become a prime target because Clinton had a lot to answer for regarding her family’s philanthropic organization.
“The challenge with the foundation is that it has $2 billion in donations from its work,” she said. “The big worry is that (donors) will want some action or payback.”
More than 40 percent of the top donors to the Clinton family foundation are based in foreign countries, raising potential conflict-of-interest questions for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
A McClatchy analysis of 10 years of contributions found last year that the foundation had received millions in donations from foreign governments, businesses and nongovernmental organizations worldwide – from Saudi Arabia to Norway.
Last year, Common Cause called on Clinton and the foundation to commission and release results of an independent review of all large donations. They did not act on that request.
“People are concerned and want to make sure they are releasing everything,” Flynn said. “An independent assessment would be helpful. The information can help people judge.”
Trump began attacking the foundation Wednesday even before taking the podium for his speech. Appearing on “CBS This Morning,” he said “All the money (Clinton) is raising is blood money.”
Trump demanded last week that the foundation return the $25 million it reportedly received from Saudi Arabia, asserting in a Facebook post that the Middle East nation “and many of the countries that gave vasts amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays.”
Some foundation contributors have connections to the Panama Papers – documents by the law firm Mossack Fonseca establishing offshore entities. They include Russian investor Sergei Kurzin and Canadian mining magnate Frank Giustra, who has traveled the world with former President Bill Clinton, largely aboard Giustra’s luxurious private jet.
Speaking at a Manhattan hotel Wednesday, Trump argued that the former secretary of state has “perfected the politics of personal profit and even theft.”
Trump added that Clinton “has spent her entire life making money for special interests, and I will tell you, she’s made plenty of money for them and she’s been taking plenty of money out for herself.”
Clinton’s campaign dismissed the accusations. “The only thing Donald Trump offered today was more hypocritical lies and nutty conspiracy theories,” campaign spokesman Glen Caplin said.
The Clinton Foundation responded via Twitter, touting what the organization does. The group also distributed its annual report, which is full of statistics about the work and describes some of the people who have benefited from the organization.
Over the last 15 years, for example, 9.9 million people in more than 70 countries have received access to low-cost, livesaving HIV/AIDS treatment; more than 33,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced annually across the United States; and 31,000 American schools now provide healthier food and more physical activity to help combat childhood obesity, the foundation says.
Bill Clinton founded the charity, then called the William J. Clinton Foundation, in 2001 to address issues around the world, including health care, climate change and economic development.
The foundation agreed to disclose the names of donors after President Barack Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state in 2009, to address questions about potential conflicts of interest between fundraising and her role as the nation’s top diplomat. It also agreed to a closer review of donations from foreign entities, which led to fewer donations from overseas.
In April 2015, the Clinton Foundation agreed to limit foreign donations while Hillary Clinton runs for president.
Trump’s speech came amid a tumultuous week for his campaign in which he fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Federal Election Commission reports that showed his campaign had only $1.3 million in cash on hand, compared with Clinton’s $42.5 million war chest.
“Trump’s campaign is in a tailspin, and he’s lied about Clinton so many times it is hard to keep track,” said David Brock, a major Clinton ally and founder of Correct The Record, a rapid-response group. “He is trying to distract from the mess in his own backyard.”