WASHINGTON — State Department officials under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton moved quickly when aides to Bill Clinton asked them in March 2010 to approve plans for the former president to address clients of a British bank under investigation for violating international sanctions. Within four days, the department’s ethics office signed off on the request — as it did for hundreds of others from the former president during his wife’s four-year tenure leading the agency.
Its standard response, fired off in a short memo: “We have no objection.”
That decision remained unchanged even after the Justice Department announced just months later, in August 2010, that London-based Barclays Bank agreed to pay nearly $300 million in penalties for violating financial sanctions against Iran, Cuba, Sudan, Libya and Burma. The long-running case had hardly been secret: Barclays had openly acknowledged in its annual reports — as recently as the same month as Clinton’s 2010 request — that it was under investigation by the Justice Department and others for sanctions violations, and it cautioned that the impact on its profits “could be substantial.”
By the end of January 2011, Clinton had mingled with top Barclays clients at a private dinner in Davos, Switzerland and at a conference in Singapore — and collected $650,000 in fees for his work.
During Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as the top U.S. diplomat, lawyers and other ethics officials in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser gave near-blanket approval to at least 330 requests for Bill Clinton’s appearance at speeches, dinners and events both in the U.S. and around the globe. More than 220 paid events earned the family nearly $50 million, according to a review of State Department documents and Hillary Clinton’s financial disclosure forms by The Associated Press.
Now, as Hillary Clinton moves forward with her presidential campaign, the ease with which her husband was repeatedly cleared to address companies and governments around the world highlights the potential ethical complications that are likely to intensify if she becomes the country’s next president.
“It’s politically going to be very treacherous,” said Jan Baran, head of the government ethics group at Washington law firm Wiley Rein LLP, who served as general counsel to the Republican National Committee.
The State Department and financial disclosure documents show the agency sped through Bill Clinton’s steady stream of requests for events while rarely raising concerns about potential conflicts. At the same time, the agency’s ethics office, which had primary responsibility for the decisions, was hobbled by “strained program operations,” according to a September 2012 report by the Office of Government Ethics, the top U.S. ethics agency.
State Department ethics officials also gave quick approval to Bill Clinton’s $200,000 appearance in Florida for British-based HSBC in 2011 despite a 2012 money-laundering settlement with federal prosecutors. Five U.S. events in 2011 and 2012 netted the former president $840,000 from UBS Bank less than two years after the Swiss bank had acknowledged a massive tax evasion scheme. The banks declined to comment about their dealings with the former president.
The State Department also green-lighted requests by several foreign governments to hire the former president, despite the potential complications for his wife’s international diplomacy.
The former president was paid $600,000 to appear at a government-sponsored event in the United Arab Emirates in December 2011. The State Department also approved a 2010 Clinton event in Bangkok co-sponsored by a Thai government energy ministry and state gas firm.
The Clinton campaign declined to comment. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said last week the agency was unaware of any actions taken by Hillary Clinton that were influenced by Clinton Foundation donations or by Bill Clinton’s event or consultancy fees.
The State Department’s scrutiny, which went beyond the standard ethics requirements for all federal officials, was a voluntary process agreed to by both Clintons to avoid “even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” according to a January 2009 memo sent by David Kendall, Bill Clinton’s personal lawyer, to Jim Thessin, who oversaw the vetting in the State Department. Clinton’s office agreed to provide the names of organizations hosting the former president at least 14 days before the event, according to the memo. Lawyers at the agency would then aim to complete their review within five days.
Only a handful of proposed arrangements appear to have been rejected. A consulting contract with Saban Capital Group Inc., a firm headed by major Clinton donor Haim Saban, was rejected because of what the State Department deemed as Saban’s active involvement in foreign affairs, particularly the Middle East.
On Thursday, Saban hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s campaign at his Beverly Hills home, raising at least $1.2 million from 450 attendees.