LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As first lady in the final year of the Clinton administration, Hillary Clinton endorsed a White House plan to give tax breaks to private foundations and wealthy charity donors at the same time the William J. Clinton Foundation was soliciting donations for her husband's presidential library, recently released Clinton-era documents show.
The blurred lines between the tax reductions proposed by the Clinton administration in 2000 and the Clinton Library's fundraising were an early foreshadowing of the potential ethics concerns that have flared around the Clintons' courting of corporate and foreign donors for their family charity before she launched her campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
White House documents in the Clinton Library reviewed by The Associated Press show Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were kept apprised about a tax reduction package that would have benefited donors, including those to his presidential library, by reducing their tax burden. An interagency task force set up by Bill Clinton's executive order proposed those breaks along with deductions to middle-class taxpayers who did not itemize their returns. Federal officials estimated the plan would cost the U.S. government $14 billion in lost tax payments over a decade.
In a January 2000 memo to Hillary Clinton from senior aides, plans for a "philanthropy tax initiative roll-out" showed her scrawled approval, "HRC" and "OK." The document, marked with the archive stamp "HRC handwriting," indicated her endorsement of the tax package, which included provisions to reduce and simplify an excise tax on private foundations' investments and allow more deductions for charitable donations of appreciated property. The Clinton White House pushed the tax plan in its final budget in February 2000, but it did not survive the Republican-led Congress.
"Without your leadership, none of these proposals would have been included in the tax package," three aides wrote to Hillary Clinton in the memo, days before she led a private conference call outlining the plan to private foundation and nonprofit leaders.
Federal law does not prevent fundraising by a presidential library during a president's term. But in directly pushing the legislation while the Clinton Library was aggressively seeking donations, Hillary and Bill Clinton's altruistic support for philanthropy overlapped with their interests promoting their White House years and knitting ties with philanthropic leaders. Hundreds of pages of documents contain no evidence that anyone in the Clinton administration warned anyone about potential ethics concerns or sought to minimize the White House's active role in the legislation.
"The theme here for the Clintons is a characteristic ambiguity of doing good and at the same time doing well by themselves," said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. Jacobs said the Clinton administration could have relied on a federal commission to decide tax plans or publicly supported changes but not specific legislation.
Spokesmen for Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Clinton Foundation declined to comment, deferring to the former president's office.
A spokesman for Bill Clinton's office said his administration was not trying to incentivize giving to the foundation, but instead was spurred by a 1997 presidential humanities committee that urged tax breaks for charities to aid American cultural institutions. Bruce Reed, Bill Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser at the time, also responded Thursday that the former president "wanted to give a break to working people for putting a few more dollars in the plate at the church. Not for any other far-fetched reason." Gene Sperling, former economic adviser to both Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, added that the tax reduction package was "developed at the Treasury Department, endorsed by experts and designed to encourage all forms of charitable giving."
The tax changes would have indirectly helped the Clinton Foundation -- as well as many other U.S. charities -- by freeing nonprofits' investments and donations that otherwise would have gone into tax payments. A reduction of the excise tax would have boosted the assets of private foundations. Higher deductions for appreciated investments and property would have also aided the Clinton Foundation, which accepts non-cash gifts. In 2010, for example, the charity declared more than $5 million in donated securities on its federal tax returns.
By the time the Clinton administration introduced its tax package in February 2000, the foundation had already raised $6 million in donations, according to tax disclosures.
Months before proposing the tax breaks, Clinton White House officials began courting leaders from some of the nation's most influential charities in advance of a planned White House conference to celebrate American philanthropy at the turn of the millennium. A September 1999 White House list proposing possible "philanthropy heroes" to highlight at the conference included wealthy donors of "large recent gifts," among them Microsoft's Bill Gates and his wife, Dell computer founder Michael Dell and investors George Soros and Eli Broad.
They all later donated to the Clinton Foundation through their companies or private foundations. There are no indications that White House officials discussed future Clinton Foundation gifts with any nonprofit.
Aides told Hillary Clinton in a September 1999 memo that funding for the event would be absorbed by the Treasury Department and several foundations and donors, among them the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Getty Foundation, AOL and Jill Iscol, a close Hillary Clinton friend and donor later named finance co-chair of the first lady's New York Senate campaign.
Iscol's IF Hummingbird Foundation later donated between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. The Ford Foundation has donated more than $1 million and the MacArthur Foundation and the Mott Foundation have each donated more than $250,000.
One voice for tax breaks was the actor Paul Newman, who routed the after-tax profits and royalties from his Newman's Own food products to charity. An October 1999 Treasury memo to Clinton aides recounts a 1998 meeting between Newman and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in which the actor lobbied for "increasing the limits on charitable deductions for corporations and individuals."