Fact Check: Is The Clinton Foundation 'The Most Transparent'?

Apr 27, 2015
Originally published on December 17, 2015 10:21 am

During the early phase of her presidential run, Hillary Clinton has been dogged by scrutiny of her family's foundation, the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. The Clintons have pushed back, calling the foundation among the most transparent foundations in the world.

Bill Clinton, in an interview with Town & Country magazine, said it was, "by a good long stretch, the most transparent of all the presidential foundations and more transparent than a lot of other major foundations in the country."

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary, sought to tamp down new allegations that rich foreign donors had influenced her mother while she was secretary of state by noting that an international anti-corruption group had endorsed the foundation's disclosure practices.

"What the Clinton foundation has said is that we will be kind of even more transparent," said the former first daughter, now vice chairman of the foundation, at an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. "Even though Transparency International and others have said we're among the most transparent foundations, we'll disclose donors on a quarterly basis, not just an annual basis."

The problem with that, though, is Transparency International never cited the Clinton foundation. It did award Hillary Clinton its 2012 TI-USA Integrity Award when Clinton was secretary of state for "recognizing her contributions as secretary of state in raising the importance of transparency and anticorruption as elements of U.S. policy," Claudia Dumas, president of Transparency International, told NPR. (The organization put out a fuller statement Monday.)

"I am very honored to be here and delighted to be supporting the work of Transparency International-USA," Clinton said on March 22, 2012. She added, "Corruption and the lack of transparency eats away like a cancer at the trust people should have in their government."

She never mentioned the Clinton foundation, and Dumas' organization is focused on promoting government transparency.

"We do not do an examination or any ranking of foundations," said Dumas, who noted that Chelsea Clinton may have simply made an innocent mistake.

Disclosure

The Clinton foundation discloses all of its donors, and, as Chelsea Clinton noted, it is now doing so more frequently as Hillary Clinton is running for president. That's more than other presidential libraries and foundations.

The Carter Center, which comes closest in work, also comes closest in size and disclosure. It discloses all but its smallest donors. It raised less money — $88 million — in 2012 (its most recent disclosure year) compared with the Clinton foundation's $278 million in 2013. But it has more total assets — $584 million to $381 million.

The George W. Bush Foundation, which has assets totaling $391 million, lists just corporate backers with no amounts attached. It raised just $37 million in 2013.

Bill Clinton's comment to Town & Country, that the foundation is "by a good long stretch" the most transparent of all foundations, oversimplifies.

The Clinton foundation deals with far more money than almost all of the presidential foundations and libraries. But it's also far smaller than most well-known private family foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, Ford and Robert Wood Johnson foundations. (Assets of the Gates foundation, for example, exceed $37 billion, according to the Foundation Center in New York.)

While it's true that those foundations don't disclose donors, that's because they don't raise any money. The funds come from the families bearing the names of the organization.

And technically, the Clinton foundation isn't a foundation at all, legally speaking. It's a public charity.

'We Made Mistakes'

But just because the Clinton foundation sets disclosure rules doesn't mean it doesn't make errors. For example, Reuters found:

"Hillary Clinton's family's charities are refiling at least five annual tax returns after a Reuters review found errors in how they reported donations from governments, and said they may audit other Clinton Foundation returns in case of other errors. ... The charities' errors generally take the form of under-reporting or over-reporting, by millions of dollars, donations from foreign governments, or in other instances omitting to break out government donations entirely when reporting revenue...."

Maura Pally, the foundation's acting CEO, said in a blog post over the weekend that the organization goes "above and beyond" and has restrained the number of foreign governments that can contribute except those who have continuing "multi-year grants."

But she admitted, "We made mistakes," notably that that some "government grants were mistakenly combined with other donations."

"We are acting quickly to remedy them," she said of the mistakes, "and have taken steps to ensure they don't happen in the future."

Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropy at Indiana University, told NPR it's actually rather common for gaps to turn up in the tax returns filed by charitable foundations.

"I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that there is something to hide here," Lenkowsky said, "because so many other charities have difficulty with their record keeping."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Hillary Clinton has been dogged over the past week by scrutiny of her family's foundation. The Clintons are pushing back, saying their organization is one of the most transparent in the world. NPR's Peter Overby has dug into that claim.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Clinton Foundation's acting CEO, Maura Pally, said this weekend that the foundation has made mistakes, but it's committed to operating responsibly and with better transparency. Pally's blog post came days after Chelsea Clinton, the foundation's vice chair, defended the foundation at a conference in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: Even though Transparency International and others have said we're among the most transparent foundations, we'll disclose donors at a quarterly basis and not just an annual basis.

OVERBY: Here's Claudia Dumas, president of Transparency International-USA.

CLAUDIA DUMAS: We do not do an examination or any ranking of foundations.

OVERBY: Transparency International, or TI for short, promotes government transparency as a way to fight corruption. Back in 2012, TI's U.S. chapter did give Hillary Clinton an award. She was then secretary of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Thank you. Well, I am - I am very honored to be here and delighted to be supporting the work of Transparency International-USA.

OVERBY: At TI-USA, Claudia Dumas said the award was...

DUMAS: Recognizing her contributions as secretary of state in raising the importance of transparency and anticorruption as elements of U.S. policy.

OVERBY: And Clinton never mentioned the foundation in her speech. Dumas said linking the award to the Clinton Foundation may have been an innocent mistake. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, in the April issue of Town & Country magazine, said the Clinton Foundation, quote, "is by a good long stretch the most transparent of all the presidential foundations and more transparent than a lot of other major foundations in the country," unquote. That oversimplifies things. The Clinton Foundation discloses all its donors. Former President Jimmy Carter's charitable Carter Center discloses all but its smallest donors. And those other major foundations that Clinton referred to - most of the big foundations - Ford, Gates, Rockefeller, for instance - are privately funded and don't have any outside donors to disclose. Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropy at Indiana University, says it's actually rather common for gaps to turn up in the tax returns filed by charitable foundations.

LESLIE LENKOWSKY: I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that there was some intent to hide here because so many other charities have difficulty with their record-keeping.

OVERBY: Lenkowsky said he's less concerned about the Clinton Foundation controversy itself and more concerned about its impact on the philanthropic world. So at least as things stand now, the Clinton Foundation transparency controversy resembles some of the other episodes of Clinton politics. It's a picture that's not terribly clear, shaped by exaggerations on both sides. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We want to thank you for spending time with us for listening to your Public Radio Station. Tomorrow morning, more and more libraries are installing 3-D printers - the questions that raises on Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.