Ethics wall between State, Clinton Foundation didn’t extend to staff

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev., on Aug. 25, 2016. Clinton is rolling out a comprehensive plan to address millions of Americans coping with mental health illness. Clinton's campaign is releasing a multi-pronged approach to mental health on Monday, Aug. 29.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev., on Aug. 25, 2016. Clinton is rolling out a comprehensive plan to address millions of Americans coping with mental health illness. Clinton's campaign is releasing a multi-pronged approach to mental health on Monday, Aug. 29. AP

An official at the Clinton Global Initiative sent top State Department aide Melanne Verveer a 63-page list of individuals, groups and companies that had pledged money to its programs.

An employee at another Clinton Foundation offshoot emailed Verveer looking for a job for a former colleague.

Yet another asked whether Verveer could persuade Myanmar’s internationally acclaimed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to attend an event.

Verveer, a longtime Hillary Clinton confidante who served as her chief of staff at the White House before becoming ambassador at large for global women’s issues, was in regular contact with Clinton Foundation officials during her four years at the State Department, according to dozens of emails.

She helped hone the group’s message on women’s issues, provided ideas for meetings, fielded speaking invitations and responded to requests from donors, including one from ExxonMobil to introduce a Cameroon entrepreneur at an event. In 2011, Verveer joined a Clinton Global Initiative advisory committee to plan the group’s annual meeting.

While Clinton had signed an ethics agreement to largely remove herself from issues involving her family’s foundation after she became the nation’s top diplomat in 2009, the document did not apply to her aides at the State Department.

“I'm . . . scratching my head about why people inside the State Department didn't think it was a good idea to insulate senior officials and their staff from any Clinton Foundation activities,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight. “Restrictions applied to Hillary, but those restrictions should have applied to other officials too.”

Verveer’s emails were provided to McClatchy by the conservative group Citizens United, which obtained them through a lawsuit filed against the State Department after its Freedom of Information Act request went unanswered. Citizens United's former president, David Bossie, was named deputy manager of Donald Trump’s campaign Thursday, according to the Washington Post.

Other emails released in recent weeks by Citizens United and other groups looking to hurt Clinton in her presidential race against Trump show that other top aides, including Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and Deputy Chiefs of Staff Huma Abedin and Jake Sullivan, were in regular contact with foundation officials about donors’ requests, job applicants and talking points for Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, who started the foundation.

The emails show the close, friendly relations between State Department and Clinton Foundation officials, providing a level of access that other groups undoubtedly wished they had with the administration.

Verveer also was in contact with other nongovernmental groups – including the Gates, Avon and MacArthur foundations and ONE, which was co-founded by the rock star Bono – but it’s unlikely those relationships were as close as that with the Clinton Foundation.

In most cases, Clinton Global Initiative officials ask Verveer for assistance on a variety of tasks, big and small, starting almost immediately after she began her job, according to the emails.

In some instances, they just sent her updates and information. But at least one time, Verveer asked for a favor.

In August 2012, she asked for a ticket to a Clinton Global Initiative event for a government official from Norway – a major foundation donor, though she doesn’t mention that. “They do plan to support through $$ the project,” she wrote.

Verveer was familar with Clinton Global Initiative employees, proposals and project sponsors. In June 2011, she sent an official at the initiative a list of companies that had invested in women’s and girl’s programs. Three months later, she mentioned Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart programs. “They are both extraordinary initiatives that I have been nurturing,” she said.

In February 2011, Verveer accepted an invitation to be on a Clinton Global Initiative advisory committee after checking with a State Department ethics official. “So long as I am engaged in a purely advisory capacity on the issues in which I have an expertise as I’ve been (except now it’s formalized on an advisory committee) it would be fine,” she wrote.

Now a Clinton supporter, Verveer participated in a conference call for her former boss’s campaign Wednesday, speaking to more than 50 ethnic and heritage community leaders about the race. She did not respond to a message this week requesting comment for this story.

Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin emphasized what a current State Department official recently said – that department officials are in touch with a wide range of outside individuals and the Clinton State Department actions were always taken to advance foreign policy interests.

“Citizens United is a right-wing group that's been attacking the Clintons since the 1990s and, once again, is trying to make something out of nothing,” Schwerin said.

Richard Painter, who served as a White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said Clinton’s ethics agreement allowed aides to communicate with the foundation as long as Clinton herself wasn’t directing them to act in some way.

Still, Painter said the Clintons should have considered that Hillary Clinton might run for president again and should have completely severed ties with the foundation and banned coordination on anything between the State Department and the foundation. “They could have done that, probably should have done that,” said Painter, who teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School.

John Wonderlich, interim executive director for the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, called the Clinton ethics agreement “insufficient” and said it should have included aides even though that would have added more bureaucratic challenges. He said the Clintons had been unprepared for the sheer number of potential conflicts of interests the foundation would cause.

Federal law requires government employees to refrain from issues issues involving former employers or affiliated organizations for a year. President Barack Obama took it a step further when he came into office, requiring a two-year ban. But the language is narrow. It allows for interactions, just not those that are more serious, such as contract negotiations or litigation, ethics experts say.

Norman Eisen, who served as a White House ethics lawyer under Obama, said Clinton had gone above and beyond what federal law required when she severed her ties to the foundation. Her aides’ actions, he said, were not unusual.

“What occurred was nothing unusual for secretaries of states, the normal give and take of government,” said Eisen, who is a visiting fellow of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution.