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Favors to foundation donors stretch back to Hillary Clinton’s Senate days

Earmarks, legislative action benefited husband’s benefactors

by Kelly Riddell     •     The Washington Times Hillary Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efforts to provide favors to major donors to her husband’s global charity or her own political career stretch back far earlier than her tenure as America’s top diplomat, dating to the time she served as a U.S. senator and had the power to earmark federal funds and influence legislation, records show.

For instance, Mrs. Clinton introduced a bill when she was New York’s junior senator that allowed a donor to the Clinton Foundation to use tax-exempt bonds to build a shopping center in Syracuse, New York, public records show.

She also went to bat for Freddie Mac, working to defeat legislation that would have subjected the mortgage giant to tougher regulations before the housing bubble burst and led to a major recession. That same year, Freddie Mac donated $50,000 to $100,000 to her husband’s charity, originally called the William J. Clinton Foundation records show.

Mrs. Clinton also used her leverage as a senator to help persuade the Chinese government to reduce tariffs on Corning Inc.’s fiber optic products. The central New York company’s employees and executives contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to her campaigns and political action committee.

Analysts on political money have said the pattern of Mrs. Clinton’s intervention on behalf of donors to her husband’s charity raise troubling ethical questions.

“It seems like the Clinton Foundation operates as a slush fund for the Clintons,” Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, told the New York Post in April after conflict-of-interest reports started surfacing between the Clinton Foundation and Mrs. Clinton’s political work. Mr. Allison declined to be interviewed for this article.

A Fox News poll released last week suggests that Americans agree with Mr. Allison’s viewpoint. Sixty-one percent of voters said it was somewhat likely that the Clintons were “selling influence to foreign contributors” who made donations to the Clinton Foundation while Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state.

In a CNN/ORC poll conducted this month, 57 percent of Americans said Mrs. Clinton was not honest and trustworthy, up from 49 percent in March.

Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as New York’s senator only adds to the storyline of political favors for wealthy contributors.

In 2004, Robert J. Congel, an upstate New York builder, contributed $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation — one month after Mrs. Clinton, as senator, helped enact legislation that allowed Mr. Congel’s firm to use tax-free bonds to build a mega-shopping center dubbed Destiny USA in Syracuse.

About year later, Mrs. Clinton put an additional earmark in a highway bill for $5 million for Mr. Congel’s development project, which passed nine months after Mr. Congel donated to the Clinton Foundation.

Overall, Destiny USA, now the sixth-largest shopping mall in the U.S., received 15 government tax subsidies valued at more than $703.6 million, making the Syracuse property one of the biggest recipients of economic development dollars in the nation, according to a report released by Good Jobs First, a research center in Washington. Not all the money was paid out during Mrs. Clinton’s term as senator.

Mr. Congel declined to be interviewed for this article, as did a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign. But back in 2009, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman Philippe Reines told The New York Times that there was no connection between Mr. Congel’s donation and her legislative work on his project.

Mrs. Clinton supported expansion of the mall “purely as part of her unwavering commitment to improving upstate New York’s struggling economy, and nothing more,” Mr. Reines told the New York paper. He added that Mrs. Clinton didn’t solicit the money from Mr. Congel or discuss it with him or anyone on his behalf and was unaware of its timing and size until some years later.

Mrs. Clinton’s team was quick to note that she was just one of a number of New York politicians, both Democratic and Republican, who helped enact the bill that gave the tax breaks to Destiny USA.

Still, Mrs. Clinton had a reputation for helping upstate New York companies that, in turn, either gave money to her husband’s foundation or to her own re-election campaign.

During Mrs. Clinton’s term as senator, Corning contributed $274,700 to her through its political action committee, employees or employees’ family members, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — making it the 19th-largest donor during Mrs. Clinton’s career.

The company also gave $150,000 to the Clinton Foundation and paid the former senator $225,000 for a speaking fee last July.

Corning, a manufacturer of glass and ceramics that are used in fiber optics and diesel emission controls, among others, has a corporate vested interest in international trade, tariffs and environmental initiatives that could help drive sales of its products.

One month after its political action committee gave $10,000 to Mrs. Clinton’s re-election campaign in 2003, she announced legislation that would provide “hundreds of millions in federal aid to reduce diesel pollution, using, among other things, technology pioneered by Corning,” a 2006 New York Times article reported.

Probably her biggest contribution to the company was lobbying China to ease tariffs on Corning fiber optic products. Mrs. Clinton invited the Chinese ambassador to her office and personally asked President George W. Bush for assistance, according to the Times report. One month after beginning the effort, Corning Chairman James Houghton held a fundraiser for Mrs. Clinton at his home that collected tens of thousands of dollars for her re-election campaign.

Corning insists there was no connection between the donations and Mrs. Clinton’s help.

“There is no connection between the [Corning PAC] contribution and the Senator’s decision to co-sponsor legislation to reduce emissions that are harmful to human health,” Dan Collins, a spokesman for Corning, wrote in an email. “The legislation was supported by a large community of businesses, environmentalists, health groups, and state government officials.”

In terms of her lobbying the Chinese, Mr. Collins wrote: “[Mrs. Clinton] worked with the Bush administration to defend all U.S. exporters of optical fiber from unjustified claims that U.S. exporters were dumping optical fiber into China’s market. The anti-dumping petition was filed with the Chinese government by our competitors in China as a means to protect their market and themselves from fair import competition.”

The Clinton Foundation donation was to promote the full participation of women in society, and the speaking fee given to Mrs. Clinton was for her to advise the company’s senior leaders on international affairs.

“In her capacity as a former Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton is uniquely qualified to advise our senior leaders on international affairs. Past speakers have included such internationalists as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski,” Mr. Collins said.

Yet not all of Mrs. Clinton’s work as senator directly benefited her home state.

Before the housing bubble burst, Freddie Mac gave the Clinton Foundation a $50,000 to $100,000 donation — during the same time the mortgage giant was lobbying to block congressional legislation that would have imposed tougher accounting standards on the firm.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae’s political action committee and individuals linked to the companies also donated $75,500 to Mrs. Clinton’s senatorial campaign, making her the fourth-largest recipient in Congress of the mortgage firms’ total donations in the years 1989 to 2008 behind Barack Obama, John F. Kerry and Christopher J. Dodd, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2005, long before Fannie and Freddie went belly-up, Sen. Richard C. Shelby led a small group of legislators favoring reform, including fellow Republican Sens. John Sununu, Chuck Hagel and Elizabeth Dole. The government-sponsored enterprises fiercely opposed the legislation.

Their bill proposed the creation of a regulator for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan banks. The legislation then gave the regulator the authority to shut down either Fannie or Freddie if they encountered a severe financial crisis, and gave it power to regulate any new activities. The bill required an annual audit of the mortgage giants’ books and a provision that all directors be elected, not appointed by the president.

Mrs. Clinton joined Mr. Dodd, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama in the Senate to actively oppose the measure. In the end, they were successful. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were able to operate under a light government hand until after the housing bubble burst in 2007.

“Freddie Mac stopped all advocacy and lobbying activities when it entered conservatorship in 2008,” Brad German, a spokesman for Freddie Mac, wrote in an email to The Times. “Charitable donations made by Freddie Mac before then were made in compliance with corporate policy and applicable law.”

The mortgage giant couldn’t confirm the donations made to specific entities before that period because the executives involved in those decisions are no longer with the firm, Mr. German said.