The Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars from seven foreign governments during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, including one donation that violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration, foundation officials disclosed Wednesday.
Most of the contributions were possible because of exceptions written into the foundation’s 2008 agreement, which included limits on foreign-government donations.
The agreement, reached before Clinton’s nomination amid concerns that countries could use foundation donations to gain favor with a Clinton-led State Department, allowed governments that had previously donated money to continue making contributions at similar levels.
The new disclosures, provided in response to questions from The Washington Post, make clear that the 2008 agreement did not prohibit foreign countries with interests before the U.S. government from giving money to the charity closely linked to the secretary of state.
In one instance, foundation officials acknowledged they should have sought approval in 2010 from the State Department ethics office, as required by the agreement for new government donors, before accepting a $500,000 donation from the Algerian government.
The money was given to assist with earthquake relief in Haiti, the foundation said. At the time, Algeria, which has sought a closer relationship with Washington, was spending heavily to lobby the State Department on human rights issues.
While the foundation has disclosed foreign-government donors for years, it has not previously detailed the donations that were accepted during Clinton’s four-year stint at the State Department.
A foundation spokesman said Wednesday that the donations all went to fund the organization’s philanthropic work around the world. In some cases, the foundation said, foreign-government donations were part of multiyear grants that had been awarded before Clinton’s appointment to pay for particular charitable efforts, such as initiatives to lower the costs of HIV and AIDs drugs and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
“As with other global charities, we rely on the support of individuals, organizations, corporations and governments who have the shared goal of addressing critical global challenges in a meaningful way,” said the spokesman, Craig Minassian. “When anyone contributes to the Clinton Foundation, it goes towards foundation programs that help save lives.”
Some of the donations came from countries with complicated diplomatic, military and financial relationships with the U.S. government, including Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
Other nations that donated included Australia, Norway and the Dominican Republic.
The foundation presents a unique political challenge for Clinton, and one that has already become a cause of concern among Democrats as she prepares to launch an almost-certain second bid for the presidency.
Rarely, if ever, has a potential commander in chief been so closely associated with an organization that has solicited financial support from foreign governments. Clinton formally joined the foundation in 2013 after leaving the State Department, and the organization was renamed the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
The Washington Post reported last week that foreign sources, including governments, made up a third of those who have given the foundation more than $1 million over time. The Post found that the foundation, begun by former president Bill Clinton, has raised nearly $2 billion since its creation in 2001.
Foreign governments and individuals are prohibited from giving money to U.S. political candidates, to prevent outside influence over national leaders. But the foundation has given donors a way to potentially gain favor with the Clintons outside the traditional political limits.
In a presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton would be likely to showcase her foreign-policy expertise, yet the foundation’s ongoing reliance on foreign governments’ support opens a potential line of attack for Republicans eager to question her independence as secretary of state and as a possible president.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the foundation had accepted new foreign-government money now that the 2008 agreement has lapsed.
A review of foundation disclosures shows that at least two foreign governments — Germany and the United Arab Emirates — began giving in 2013 after the funding restrictions lapsed when Clinton left the Obama administration. Some foreign governments that had been supporting the foundation before Clinton was appointed, such as Saudi Arabia, did not give while she was in office and have since resumed donating.
Foundation officials said last week that if Clinton runs, they will consider taking steps to address concerns over the role of foreign donors.
“We will continue to ensure the Foundation’s policies and practices regarding support from international partners are appropriate, just as we did when she served as Secretary of State,” the foundation said in a statement.
Foreign governments had been major donors to the foundation before President Obama nominated Clinton to become secretary of state in 2009. When the foundation released a list of its donors for the first time in 2008, as a result of the agreement with the Obama administration, it disclosed, for instance, that Saudi Arabia had given between $10 million and $25 million.
In some cases, the foundation said, governments that continued to donate while Clinton was at the State Department did so at lower levels than before her appointment.
Foundation officials said Wednesday that the ethics review process required under the 2008 agreement for new donors — or for existing foreign-government donors wishing to “materially increase” their support — was never initiated during Clinton’s State Department years.
But, they added, on one occasion, it should have been.
The donation from Algeria for Haiti earthquake relief, they said, arrived without notice within days of the 2010 quake and was distributed as direct aid to assist in relief. Algeria has not donated to the foundation since, officials said.
The contribution coincided with a spike in the North African country’s lobbying visits to the State Department.
That year, Algeria spent $422,097 lobbying U.S. government officials on human rights issues and U.S.-Algerian relations, according to filings made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Data tracked by the Sunlight Foundation shows that while the Algerian government’s overall spending on lobbying in the United States remained steady, there was an increase in 2010 in State Department meetings held with lobbyists representing the country — with 12 visits to department officials that year, including some visits with top political appointees. In the years before and after, only a handful of State Department visits were recorded by Algeria lobbyists.
A 2010 State Department report on human rights in Algeria noted that “principal human rights problems included restrictions on freedom of assembly and association” and cited reports of arbitrary killings, widespread corruption and a lack of transparency. Additionally, the report, issued in early 2011, discussed restrictions on labor and women’s rights.
“Algeria is one of those complicated countries that forces the United States to balance our interests and values,” Clinton wrote in her 2014 book, “Hard Choices.” She said that the country was an ally in combating terrorism but that “it also has a poor human rights record and a relatively closed economy.”
A State Department spokesman referred questions about the ethics-office reviews to the charity. Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesman, declined to comment.
Besides Algeria, a number of the other countries that donated to the foundation during Clinton’s time at the State Department also lobbied the U.S. government during that time.
Qatar, for instance, spent more than $5.3 million on registered lobbyists while Clinton was secretary of state, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The country’s lobbyists were reported monitoring anti-terrorism activities and efforts to combat violence in Sudan’s Darfur region. Qatar has also come under criticism from some U.S. allies in the region that have accused it of supporting Hamas and other militant groups. Qatar has denied the allegations.
The 2008 agreement laid out that the new rules were intended to allow the Clinton Foundation to continue its “important philanthropic work around the world,” while also avoiding conflicts. It was signed by Bruce Lindsey, then the foundation’s chief executive, and Valerie Jarrett, who was co-chair of Obama’s transition team.
Jennifer Friedman, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement that the agreement was signed “to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest” and “in keeping with the high standards we set for our nominees.” She said the deal went “above and beyond standard ethics requirements.”
Then-Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), who was the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the foundation “a unique complication that will have to be managed with great care and transparency” and called on the organization not to take any new foreign-government money while Clinton was serving as secretary of state.
“The Clinton Foundation exists as a temptation for any foreign entity or government that believes it could curry favor through a donation,” he said then. “It also sets up potential perception problems with any action taken by the secretary of state in relation to foreign givers or their countries.”
Lugar also called on the foundation to release more information about its donors, including how much each gives annually. (Since 2008, the foundation has released only how much donors have given cumulatively over time.) He said ethics officials should review donations from all foreign sources, not just governments, because of the close ties in many countries between wealthy interests and government officials.
Then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee’s chairman at the time, called Lugar’s concerns a “legitimate question.” Kerry, who succeeded Clinton as secretary of state, suggested the potential at least for appearance problems if her official duties seemed to coincide with her husband’s fundraising efforts.
“If you are traveling to some country and you meet with the foreign leadership and a week later or two weeks later or three weeks later the president travels there and solicits a donation and they pledge to give at some point in the future but nobody knows, is there an appearance of a conflict?” Kerry asked.
At the hearing, Clinton said foreign governments donated to the foundation in part because the U.S. government had been slow to press for reductions in the cost of HIV and AIDs drugs. She said the agreement went beyond what was required by law.
“I will certainly do everything in my power to make sure that the good work of the foundation continues without there being any untoward effects on me and my service and be very conscious of any questions that are raised,” she said. “But I think that the way that this has been hammered out is as close as we can get to doing something that is so unprecedented that there is no formula for it, and we’ve tried to do the very best we could.”
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.
This piece was originally published in The Washington Post on February 25, 2015.