Friday, December 19, 2008

What's The [Legal] Deal with the Clinton Foundation?

What is the legal deal with the news regarding foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation?  I am, of course, fully aware of the political hash being made by the media.  The insinuation is that the donors, foreign and domestic, but foreign especially, are buying influence not making charitable contributions. 

The potential for foreign donors to the Clinton foundation to create the appearance of conflicts of interest for Mrs. Clinton as she handles foreign policy matters was illustrated by Amar Singh, listed as giving between $1 million and $5 million. Mr. Singh is apparently a prominent Indian politician of that same name.  In September, Mr. Singh visited Washington to lobby Congress to support a deal allowing India to obtain civilian nuclear fuel and technology from the United States. The deal was controversial because India has developed nuclear weapons but is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Mr. Singh met and posed for photographs with Mrs. Clinton, afterwards telling Indian reporters that Mrs. Clinton had assured him that Democrats would not block the deal. Congress approved the nuclear cooperation deal with India a few days later. Several other donors have connections to India — a potential foreign policy flashpoint because of tensions with Pakistan.Among them was Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian businessman — the fourth richest person in the world, according to Forbes — who made billions in the steel industry. Although he has long lived in London, Mr. Mittal, who donated from $1 million to $5 million, is also a board member of India’s second largest bank. In 2002, Mr. Mittal was involved in a British scandal when, shortly after making a large donation to the Labour Party, he gained the help of Prime Minister Tony Blair in his bid to convince Romania to sell him its state steel company.

All well and good for a couple of news cycles, I supposse.  But most large donors to charities do it for some kind of quid pro quo anyway, even if we chose to think otherwise.  In a few weeks, if not sooner, we will all sit down to watch "nonprofit" football bowl games sponsored by "nonadvertisers" who expect nothing in return (wink, wink!)  The obvious speculative answer to the title question is that the foundation may be selling influence or access, not accepting donations.  I suppose, then, that the foundation would be operating for a noncharitable purpose (selling lobbying services, for example) or conveying an improper private benefit.  That is, if it could be proven that Bill and Hillary somehow do the bidding of the Saudi government, for example, in return for the huge donations that the Clinton Foundation is so adept at reeling in.  Ah, so there is the rub.  What, pray tell, does private benefit really mean.  And when does a successful charity cross the line from charity to commercialism.  Our intrepid co-editor, John C. has penned more than a few articles delving into these questions and why, if at all, we should be concerned.  Alas, the deep structure of tax exempt law is still greek to most of us (except the people of Greece, to them it is American).  It would be a shame, though, if all the good work the Clinton Foundation does (like making AIDS drugs affordable in third world countries) were to be somehow besmirched over a fake media generated controversy.


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