Contributions for Access....Not Illegal....Not Even Bad!

In a free society  with democratically elected leaders and a capitalist economic system, where our constitution tells us  financial contributions are a form of protected free speech, those who give financial support will always be recognized  with access to those they support.   It has always been this way.  It will always be this way.  It is not a bad thing!

Eleven years ago in 2005, after years of travel to Africa and Haiti on mission-based projects, I started a foundation to support some very deserving young people with scholarships.  Over the years, I have worked hard to grow this foundation and we now provide over 100 annual scholarships to young people studying in 27 countries in the developing world.  Our scholars are distinguished, not just by their academic pursuits but also by their willingness to give back in the form of community service.  My foundation has also helped build 5 YMCA community centers in Haiti.   None of this would be possible without my “arm-twisting” and cajoling clients and business acquaintances to make donations along with mine.  Are some of these folks helping out of a sense of obligation to me and maybe even in some cases with the hope I will do something back for them?   Of course they are!

Although most, but not all, of my political contributions over the years have been modest and to Democrats, the first large political contribution I ever made was $1000 to then Presidential candidate George HW Bush.   I did this not because I passionately supported the then Vice President.  The $1000 was very much a “command performance” requested by, ironically it seems now, Donald Trump, who I was working with as a land use attorney.  Donald had recently purchased the Plaza Hotel in New York City and “arm-twisted” everyone who worked for or with him to fill a ballroom with $1000 givers “bundled” by him.   Trump did this, of course, so that he would have access to and influence with a man who would that November be elected President.  I made the contribution to curry the favor of Donald, plain and simple.   This same thing happens all the time, always has, likely always will.

Is any of this illegal, unethical or just plain bad?  Illegal, of course not, as long as no corruption results, which, in reality, very seldom does.  Unethical or bad…. a harder question…. and the answer is… it depends.  If the donations or the seeking or getting of same caused some action that would otherwise not have happened or perhaps enriched someone giving or getting, then you have to look at the facts. 

So then,  to the point right now, was  it unethical or even just “garden-variety” bad to trade on access to say a Secretary of State, read that, of course, Hillary Clinton.  Yes, certainly if the person gaining access was to make a direct payment to Hillary or her family.  This is true, in my view, even though very likely not illegal, if Hillary took no action to benefit the person given access.    This said, in my considered view, it makes a big difference, in fact all the difference, if the access is traded for a charitable purpose (or even, which is not the case here, for a political contribution) not personal gain.  Who can argue that the invaluable work of the Clinton Foundation in the areas of Aids prevention, agriculture, public health and poverty is not such a charitable purpose?     Thus, once the smoke clears and  the partisan spin is  put to the side, it is pretty simple, if Hillary had a meeting with someone, took no governmental action to benefit that someone and that someone gave a contribution in support of the charitable work of the Clinton Foundation, I say, not illegal, not unethical, not even “bad.”    

When I was just out of college I worked for a very fine man elected to Congress.   One of my jobs when I served as his Administrative Aid in the district was to make sure to know the names of everyone who contributed  $100 or more to his campaign ($100 was a lot of money in 1976) and make sure the Congressman treated them well.  “Treated them well” did not mean anything more than knowing their name and hearing them out if they wanted to talk to him.  They got the same constituent service, albeit sometimes a bit more personal, that we gave every one of the 500,000 folks who lived in the Congressional district.  My guess is it’s the same deal with Hillary Clinton.  She wants to be President for all 320 million of us, and do right by us all.  If along the way she  wants to give a little special notice to those who have really helped her get there or perhaps to those who go the extra distance helping others through a charity,  I say, “you go girl.”  I would not want it any other way.

We all do favors for friends.  In our country which is free, democratic and has a robust capitalist economy, these favors are often financial and the favor back is often access.  “Often” is actually not right; I should say “virtually always,” this is the favor back.   To me, it is utterly disingenuous to criticize this totally prevalent system of give and take, especially when the access, without any improper action, is traded to get someone to open their wallet to a genuine charitable cause.  In my view, this call isn’t even close.

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