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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 11:55 pm | Fair 51º


Joe Conason: Why Reporters Ignore the Real Story of the Clinton Foundation

The mere prospect of Hillary Rodham Clinton running for president again is evidently provoking outrage among old adversaries — from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News to Maureen Dowd — whose appetite for bogus "Clinton scandals" will never be sated.

With the fizzling of Benghazi after an official State Department probe found no wrongdoing by the former secretary of state, her critics have moved on, casting a gimlet eye on the charitable foundation built by her husband, the former president, over the past decade. Although Hillary has mostly been very busy elsewhere, the foundation provides an ample target for speculation and spite — so long as critics ignore what it actually does for people around the world.

When The New York Times assigned two reporters to examine the finances and administration of the Clinton Foundation, which recently added the names of Hillary and daughter Chelsea to its official title, the results were all too predictable: a front-page article ominous in tone, rife with insinuations and gossip, and distorted by major errors. Such is the habit of the newspaper of record, where the phony Whitewater "scandal" originated in a similarly flawed story more than two decades ago. That journalistic disgrace, spurred forward by dozens of Times editorials and op-ed columns, distracted the nation for years, harmed many innocent people besides the Clintons and cost the Treasury more than $50 million — a troubling episode for a great newspaper.

Now the Times is suggesting that the Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization responsible for saving and improving millions of lives every year, has been financially mismanaged and misused for personal enrichment, among other problems. Those accusations have been amplified not only by the Clintons' traditional enemies on the Republican right, who mortally fear a Hillary 2016 electoral juggernaut, but in a rather deranged column by Dowd, as well.

The article that the Times published on Aug. 13 jumbled together a string of alleged concerns and anonymous accusations, largely lacking in substance. The story indicated, for example, that Douglas Band, former counselor to President Bill Clinton, who has since left the foundation to build a consulting firm, is guilty of serious conflicts of interest — without specifying a single actual conflict.

A number of companies impressed by Band's creation and management of the Clinton Global Initiative — one of the premier venues for corporate social responsibility on the planet today — have hired his firm to advise them. He has also apparently persuaded companies to support CGI with money and other commitments. Exactly how did such activities compromise CGI or the Clinton Foundation, or harm anyone at all? Readers would find no clear answer in the Times. Instead, its reporters dished out unflattering, largely irrelevant anecdotes about Band and Ira Magaziner, whose work at the Clinton Health Access Initiative has provided vital drugs, tests and medical services to millions of patients across Africa and around the world.

Furthermore, someone told the Times reporters that Band and Magaziner had quarreled about various issues. Plainly, the notion that personal or professional conflict might occur in a worldwide organization with thousands of employees shocked the Times. (But when similarly nasty and pointless newsroom gossip about Jill Abramson erupted in Politico, the top Times editor and her friends felt deeply offended.)

Worse than the reliance on backstairs gossip, however, were the factual errors featured in the Times story, particularly concerning the Clinton Foundation's finances. As President Clinton himself noted in an open letter posted on the foundation website, the article incorrectly described the foundation's financial condition and history — because the reporters didn't understand how nonprofits are required to report their cash flows on IRS documents.

In his letter, which will interest anyone who wants to understand what he has been doing for the past decade, the former president explained: "When someone makes a multiyear commitment to the foundation, we have to report it all in the year it was made. In 2005 and 2006 as a result of multiyear commitments, the foundation reported a surplus of $102.8 million though we collected nowhere near that. In later years, as the money came in to cover our budgets, we were required to report the spending but not the cash inflow. Also, if someone makes a commitment that he or she later has to withdraw, we are required to report that as a loss, though we never had the money in the first place and didn't need it to meet our budget."

So the foundation budget deficits reported by the Times in 2007 and 2008 were at least partially offset by earlier commitments. Moreover, as President Clinton also notes, he had set aside substantial cash reserves that hedged against the financial crash and recession — leaving him able to maintain the foundation's service to HIV/AIDS patients, mothers and children and other vulnerable groups despite an economic slowdown that proved devastating to many charities and businesses.

Such facts scarcely concern Dowd, whose habitual tic is to exaggerate any canard against the Clintons. Inspired by the Times probe, her latest column spilled forth one bizarre assertion after another. "If Americans are worried about money in politics, there is no larger concern than the Clintons," she wrote, as if entirely ignorant of the Koch brothers, the Karl Rove dark-money machine and Sheldon Adelson's outpourings of casino cash. Band's firm is "an egregious nest of conflicts," she exclaimed excitedly, without naming any actual conflict. "We are supposed to believe that every dollar given to a Clinton is a dollar that improves the world," she sneered.

Perhaps not every dollar: Some of the money earned by the Clintons has paid their personal expenses, some has paid off millions of dollars in old legal debts incurred during those earlier fake scandals and some has gone toward political campaigns, including Hillary's presidential race. But if Dowd and her Times colleagues were honestly interested in what the Clinton Foundation does with its funds, including the millions raised annually by President Clinton himself, all they would have to do is get off their butts and go look at its projects, which can be found all over the world. (Disclosure: This topic interests me so much that I recently visited Clinton Foundation projects in Africa with the former president and his daughter, Chelsea.)

That they never bother to do so, because reporting those stories would ruin their preferred narrative, tells but everything we need to know — not about the Clintons, of course, but about themselves.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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