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Long time aid to U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, waits in the wings as Clinton makes a campaign stop in Fresno, California, United States June 4, 2016.
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WORKING ON IT

The newest Hillary Clinton e-mails show the banality of favor seekers seeking favors

Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

The latest evolution of the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe has failed to find clear evidence of corruption connected to her family’s charitable foundation, but does show a parade of favor seekers trying to bend her ear while she served as Secretary of State.

They also offer a window into the banality of the political workplace, as Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s top staffers, fields grasping requests for access from Doug Band, an aide to former president Bill Clinton who sought to build a business exploiting his access to the famous political family.

While presented as a narrative of “pay to play,” the latest disclosures show that wealthy individuals sought access to Clinton as they would any other politician. Despite lacking evidence of any quid pro quo, her husband’s fundraising work at their family foundation continuously provided the appearance of conflicts of interest that undermined her public image. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a special prosecutor to investigate the foundation.

The FBI has only investigated Clinton’s handling of classified information over a private e-mail server, and concluded that despite carelessness she did not violate the law. CNN has reported, via an anonymous law enforcement official, that the Department of Justice turned down FBI requests to examine Clinton’s relationship with the foundation because a previous DOJ investigation didn’t produce enough evidence for a case.

If her current presidential campaign is successful, the foundation plans to stop accepting corporate and foreign donations and wind down Bill Clinton’s participation.

The newest information comes from a lawsuit filed by the conservative organization Judicial Watch. It convinced a judge to turn over e-mails sent by Abedin, who served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff in the State Department while also a Clinton Foundation staffer, as part of its probe into potential conflicts of interest.

Waiver wire

In 2012, Abedin received an ethics waiver from the government that allowed her to continue advising Secretary Clinton while also becoming a part-time employee of the Clintons’ family foundation and Band’s outside consulting group, Teneo. Judicial Watch argues those jobs presented a conflict of interest that should not have been tolerated.

The current run of stories targets e-mails sent in 2009, the first year of Clinton’s tenure as the top US diplomat after she lost her run for president.

At the time, Band, who had risen from White House intern to personal assistant to consigliere, was her husband’s top aide at the Clinton Foundation, which raised money from individuals, corporations and governments to fight sickness and poverty in poor countries.

A grey area quickly formed around the duties of raising money for the Foundation, the ex-president’s investing and consulting work, and Band’s own ambitions, eventually realized in Teneo. As traced by journalist Alec MacGillis in this excellent profile, Band quickly became a controversial figure among the family’s advisers as he traded on the Clinton name in pursuit of all three goals, sometimes simultaneously.

Eventually, Band would cut his ties with the family before Clinton’s 2016 run, as his reputation became a political liability.

Good friends

In 2009, Band was still hard at work cultivating the former president’s network, which now included his wife, the Secretary of State. Band positioned himself as a conduit for Clinton Foundation donors to access the State Department, the Judicial Watch e-mails reveal. But they also show that Band had little clout; though funders received access to Clinton, there isn’t any evidence of special favors in these disclosures.

Critics have jumped on one e-mail exchange between Band and Abedin concerning the crown prince of Bahrain. The prince, a high-ranking official in Bahrain’s government, had in 2005 committed to fund a Clinton foundation program that would send Bahraini students to study in the US. In 2009, the prince visited the US, and Band flagged his visit in an e-mail to Abedin, describing him as a ”Good friend of ours.”

The response? Abedin said that the prince was already in contact with the government; eventually, he was offered an appointment to see Clinton. “We have reached out thru official channels,” Abedin wrote.

This exchange is seen as a smoking gun by critics because, four years later, the US approved a controversial arms transfer to Bahrain as it cracked down on pro-democracy protesters.

That approval, in 2012, followed another, separate visit by the Crown Prince to Washington, where he met with Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The decision to okay the transfer appears to have more to do with official US policy to boost a key ally against Iran than funding received by the Clinton foundation.

Clinton’s campaign and the office of former Defense Secretary Panetta both declined to comment.

Working on it

Other e-mails present a similar pattern—Band asks for a meeting or a favor, and Abedin politely shunts him aside.

On one occasion, Band asked Abedin to help a Clinton foundation donor who owned a soccer team get a visa for one of his players. Abedin said they might be able to expedite an interview. “I got this now, makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask,” she wrote Band. “Then don’t,” he replied. The footballer did not receive a visa.

Also in 2009, Band asked if a Lebanese billionaire who backed the Clinton Foundation, Gilbert Chagoury, could connect with the State Department’s Lebanon expert, Jeffrey Feltman. “I’ll talk to Jeff,” Abedin responds. Feltman told the Washington Post he was never contacted about Chagoury and never met him.

Another time, Band passes on a query from the U2 rocker Bono, who wants to know how to do some kind of live-uplink of his band’s tour to the International Space Station. Abedin’s reponse? “No clue.

The closest Clinton’s critics have come to circumstantial evidence of corruption is the appointment of financier Rajiv Fernando, a Clinton donor and high-speed trading expert, to a national security advisory board in 2011. Fernando, who e-mailed Abedin in 2009 to lobby for the job, stepped down days after being appointed to the board, after ABC News reporters questioned his lack of national security experience.

Other disclosed e-mails show that State Department staffers were baffled by his appointment to the position, but the emails haven’t connected his appointment directly to Clinton. Fernando was apparently tapped for the board by Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, who has not answered questions about why she did so.

Abedin, whose job included managing Clinton’s schedule, mostly interacted with foundation or campaign donors through requests for meetings. Her typical replies: “I’ll look into it asap.” “Yes I’ll make it work.” “We are working on it.” Not the stuff of conspiracy.

Meet the press

According to an AP analysis, some 85 Clinton Foundation donors met with Clinton when she was Secretary of State. The AP notes this is more than half of the 154 meetings Clinton took with private individuals. It does not include thousands of meetings with US officials, foreign officials, and  journalists.

Those 85 donors were among the 203 individuals or organizations that gave more than $1,000,000 to the Clinton Foundation.

The biggest conflict of interest cited in the AP story is Secretary Clinton’s extensive help for Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel prize-winning economist who was embroiled in a conflict with the government of Bangladesh over his development bank.

There’s no doubt that the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising strategy is designed to leverage the Clintons’ influence. It’s a machine to manufacture apparent conflicts of interest, and Abedin’s eventual move to become a joint employee of the Foundation, Band’s consulting group and the State Department can only be described as an error in judgement.

So far, this e-mail dump shows a typical parade of powerful individuals seeking to influence political officials, akin to the traffic to any politician’s assistant’s inbox, not a pay-to-play scandal. More e-mails may change that narrative, but so far, the news is that politicians build and maintain extensive social networks, and Hillary Clinton is a politician.

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