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The Clinton Foundation’s vague timetable to limit its involvement with overseas programs, and its insistence that Chelsea Clinton remain on its board, raise red flags for ethics watchdogs even as the charity vows to avoid conflicts of interest in a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Foundation President Donna Shalala suggested Tuesday that reorganizing the $2 billion enterprise could not happen overnight. The charity pledged last week not to accept foreign or corporate donations if Clinton is elected.
“This kind of unraveling has to be done with a scalpel so that we just do not hurt people, and do not interrupt the very good work that's being done," Shalala said in an interview with NPR.
But Richard Painter, former ethics counsel in the George W. Bush administration, said that if the Clintons really wanted to separate themselves, they could do it tomorrow.
“That could be done in one board meeting — change the name, have the board members resign and be replaced with people with no ties to the Clintons. No one in the Clinton family should be there. ... That’s an easy step to take. It could be done in an afternoon,” Painter said.
Independent trustees with experience at other charities could oversee any necessary changes without jeopardizing programs, he said.
Questions about how the global philanthropy would sever ties that raise potential conflicts of interest for a President Clinton are the latest controversy surrounding its work. Assertions that donors to the charity got special access to Clinton while she was secretary of state have dogged her campaign.
On Monday, GOP rival Donald Trump went even further, calling for a special prosecutor to "investigate Hillary Clinton's crimes," after additional emails were released showing foundation officials asking the former secretary’s top aides for favors for donors.
Clinton and her proxies have said donors did not influence policy or get preferential treatment. But the Clintons have been reluctant to unwind the charity, arguing that its work combating AIDS and malaria, for instance, is saving lives and shouldn’t be put at risk.
Shalala insisted Tuesday the proposed reorganization if Clinton wins the presidency isn’t a response to “outside criticism.”
"I was brought in a year ago to help start thinking through what the form would take if she was elected, and the president wanted to do it very carefully,” she said.
The foundation had three options, according to Norm Eisen, President Barack Obama’s former ethics czar. “The one option is the slam-on-the-brakes, where you immediately turn everything over,” he said.
The second is to shut down the foundation.
“And a third option is what we have here — with President Clinton stepping off first and a tapering off by one member of the family,” Eisen said. “Of the three [Clintons], Chelsea is the best for that taper.”
But many questions remain unanswered about the foundation's plan: It is not clear, for instance, whether Chelsea Clinton would still raise money for the charity if her mother were to win the election. Bill Clinton has promised to step down from its board and stop fundraising for it if that happens.
Shalala said the former president would also step away from “any relationship with any of these spinoffs, or these new partner organizations.”
But an existing spinoff, the Clinton Health Access Initiative — the foundation’s flagship program which became a separate organization in 2010 — raises concerns about possible exceptions.
Both Chelsea and Bill Clinton sit on the board of the health philanthropy, which files separate tax returns but accounts for the lion’s share of the foundation’s program spending on its most recent consolidated financial statement.
And CHAI’s board has made no decision on whether to limit foreign and corporate donations.
The HIV-fighting offshoot also failed to submit foreign donations to the State Department for approval or update donor disclosure lists while Clinton was secretary, a violation of the foundation’s December 2008 ethics agreement with the Obama administration. A spokeswoman for the health philanthropy told Reuters last year that the failure to update its donor disclosure lists was an “oversight.”
“CHAI is a separate legal entity from the Clinton Foundation with its own board, which will determine its next steps,” spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said Wednesday in an email. Those discussions are already underway, according to a person close to the organization.
Philanthropy experts say that changing the scope of the larger charity — with programs, donors and employees across the globe — is a legitimately complicated endeavor that could easily take years.
“Given how complex these things are from a legal perspective, [a years-long timeline] certainly doesn’t seem outrageous,” said Richard Marker, founder of NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education.
But ethicists said that process could occur without any involvement by the Clintons or those close to them. In particular, they noted that Chelsea Clinton’s continued role during that transition poses possible conflicts.
“Without a doubt, moving forward, having Chelsea at the foundation is really going to create problems for [Clinton],” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said, noting that ethics rules typically recognize the child of an official as being directly linked to their interests.
Painter shared that view. “To keep it in your family, that reiterates the problem — that people say a gift to the Clinton Foundation is a gift to the Clintons,” he said. “… You don’t need to have Clinton family people in the foundation to perpetuate the vision or the intent of the donors, unless the intent of the donors is to get close to the Clintons, which would not be proper.”
Painter contends that from an ethical perspective, Chelsea should “resign and also be replaced. They’re telling us, ‘you need Chelsea on the board in order to run all those programs.’ I just don’t buy that.”
Yet Eisen argues that replacing the board wholesale comes with its own potential costs for the foundation.
“Every time you have even one trustee rotate out, you lose institutional knowledge,” he said.
He also noted that the foundation’s reorganization go above and beyond what ethics rules would require if Clinton wins.
Painter acknowledged that the foundation “could do anything they want, legally.” But he said that halfway measures could hurt Clinton’s ability to govern effectively while providing ammunition to her critics.
“My view is that they should stop accepting all donations, immediately, now,” he said. "And the second thing would be to promise that if she does win, the foundation is separated from everyone in the Clinton family permanently, so that we don’t hear about the Clinton Foundation for the next four years.”