Although a conservative group investigating Hillary Clinton’s relationship with donors to the Clinton Foundation maintains that newly released emails prove she granted special “access” and “favors,” during her State Department tenure, nonpartisan experts say that Judicial Watch is right about the former but has not yet proven the latter.
Their insights are important as the Clinton Foundation, the family’s charity, becomes a crucial flash point in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Clinton's Republican challenger, Donald Trump, is accusing the Democratic Party's nominee of “pay to play.” It's a narrative sure to continue after Trump hired a Republican operative, Steve Bannon, who wrote a documentary alleging the Clintons got rich from their connections with big business and foreign governments.
Judicial Watch, which obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, released 725 pages of documents Monday, including 20 exchanges not previously turned over to the State Department. It alleges Clinton’s former top aide, Huma Abedin, provided “special expedited access to the secretary of State” for donors who had contributed from $25,000 to $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. Many of the exchanges involve former top Foundation executive Doug Band.
“These new emails confirm that Hillary Clinton abused her office by selling favors to Clinton Foundation donors,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement.
According to experts, the emails confirm donors were gaining access to Clinton, yet there is no evidence she granted them special favors, an important distinction that may determine how damaging the controversy is to Clinton’s campaign.
“These emails show that there was a long line of Clinton Foundation friends who had no qualms about asking the Clinton State Department for meetings, favors, and special treatment,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO. “Not shocking, but it is disappointing that there were such blurred lines between State Department officials and outsiders. I see little action on these latest requests, but I think further investigation is needed.”
“It’s not clear from these emails what actually happened after most of this stuff,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government oversight group. “That’s the missing piece of this puzzle.”
Here are the emails at issue, and the Clinton campaign’s response to them:
-- When Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain requested a 2009 meeting with Clinton, he was forced to go through the Clinton Foundation for an appointment until Band intervened. According to the Clinton Foundation website, Salman helped establish a scholarship program for CGI, and by 2010, it had contributed $32 million to the Clinton Global Initiative. According to the campaign, meeting with foreign leaders is, by definition, the role of the secretary of State and the meeting was arranged through official channels.
-- A 2009 exchange in which Band urged Abedin to get the agency to intervene in order to obtain a visa for members of a British football club, one of whose members was having difficulty because of a “criminal charge.” The campaign says the emails show no action was taken.
-- A 2009 meeting with SlimFast executive S. Daniel Abraham, who’d given between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. The campaign notes that Abraham was also head of the Center for Middle East Peace at the time and that the meeting had nothing to do with the foundation.
Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin said "Once again this right-wing organization that has been going after the Clintons since the 1990s is distorting facts to make utterly false attacks."
“No matter how this group tries to mischaracterize these documents, the fact remains that Hillary Clinton never took action as Secretary of State because of donations to the Clinton Foundation,” he said.
Judicial Watch’s charge that Clinton abused her office is also complicated by U.S. law, as determined by the Supreme Court in a 2014 case titled McCutcheon v FEC. The court determined that placing aggregate limits on campaign contributions is not valid and does not prevent corruption. “Ingratiation and access are not corruption,” the court found.
In the case of the emails, “This is classic access and influence buying,” said McGehee, yet, according to the court, it’s not corruption. “They say this is just the way the system works,” she said. “They‘re saying spending large sums of money doesn’t give rise to quid pro-quo favors.” Instead, the court said the risk of corruption is cured by disclosure requirements, “which tells you how screwed up it is,” she said.
The emails also show that certain donors were frustrated by their inability to quickly pull strings. In June 2009, Joyce Aboussie, a St. Louis-based foundation contributor, seemed frustrated in her attempts to arrange a meeting between Clinton and an energy executive. “We need this meeting with Secretary Clinton, who has been there now for nearly six months,” she wrote.
The emails highlight a trend in which donors are increasingly attempting to influence government not through specific campaign contributions but through affiliated groups, said McGehee. Aboussie and Abraham are also among Clinton's campaign bundlers who've raised at least $100,000.
“Hopefully, this situation tips the scales in favor openness and accountability to ensure that our government isn't captured by those with money or access,” Amey said.