The Hillary Clinton email saga, and in particular her explanations of it, appear to have hurt her soon-to-be-announced candidacy. Polling by Quinnipiac shows now Clinton struggling in the key states of Colorado, Iowa and Virginia. Quinnipiac’s Peter Brown finds it “difficult to see Clinton’s slippage as anything other than a further toll on her image from the furor over her e-mail.”
I agree. In the long run, however, scandals associated with the Clinton Foundation may take an even greater toll by providing a stream of harmful stories indicative of corruption relating to substantive policy (and consistent, of course, with Clinton’s desire to keep officials emails from ever seeing the light of day).
Here’s an example. The Hill reports on allegations in the International Business Times (IBT) that, as Secretary of State, Clinton turned a blind eye to substantial allegations of human rights violation in Colombia committed against workers at an oil company owned by a major Clinton Foundation donor. Notwithstanding these allegations, which were similar to ones that had led candidate Hillary Clinton to oppose a trade deal with Colombia, Clinton’s State Department touted Colombia’s human rights record and back the trade agreement, says the IBT.
The oil company in question, Pacific Rubiales, was founded by Frank Giustra, who is described as a “friend and traveling companion” of former President Clinton. Giustra has donated more than $130 million to Clinton’s philanthropies. He’s also a Clinton Foundation board member and has participated in projects and benefits for the Foundation.
“A friend and traveling companion” of Bill Clinton? There could be more than one scandal here.
In 2011, Guistra’s oil company became embroiled in a bitter labor dispute. According to the IBT:
When workers at the country’s largest independent oil company staged a strike in 2011, the Colombian military rounded them up at gunpoint and threatened violence if they failed to disband, according to human rights organizations. Similar intimidation tactics against the workers, say labor leaders, amounted to an everyday feature of life.
Shortly before this dispute, the U.S. had signed a trade agreement with Colombia. As a candidate for president, Hillary opposed the agreement, citing human rights violations. In fact, she pledged to “do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.” Barack Obama opposed the Agreement as well.
Both changed their tune after the election. Shortly before labor unrest boiled over at Guistra’s oil company, the trade legislation passed Congress.
The use, almost immediately thereafter, of government forces against workers in a labor dispute posed a problem for the administration. According to the IBT:
For the United States, these were precisely the sorts of discomfiting accounts that were supposed to be prevented in Colombia under a labor agreement that accompanied a recently signed free trade pact liberalizing the exchange of goods between the countries. From Washington to Bogota, leaders had promoted the pact as a win for all — a deal that would at once boost trade while strengthening the rights of embattled Colombian labor organizers.
Union leaders, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and human rights activists urged Secretary Clinton to pressure the Colombian government to protect labor organizers. Clinton was in a position to do so because the Obama administration hadn’t yet certified Colombia as respecting labor rights, as it had to do to cement the trade pact into law, according to the IBT.
How did Clinton respond? She responded first with silence, activists say. Then, the State Department publicly praised Colombia’s progress on human rights, and permitted hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to flow to the same Colombian military that labor activists claimed had helped intimidate workers. And in April 2012, the Obama administration certified Colombia as respecting labor rights, cementing the trade pact into law.
The agreement was of significant benefit to Giustra and Pacific Rubiales. Although it did not specifically promote oil exports, it gave investors new privileges under Colombian law — privileges that, according to Melinda St. Louis of Public Citizen, particularly favor major energy companies like Giustra’s.
During this time period, according to the IBT, Pacific Rubiales funneled money into Clinton Foundation interests. Reportedly, it had also done so during the period when Clinton ended her opposition to the free trade agreement.
Giustra’s contributions to the Clinton Foundation date much further back. But if I read the IBT’s report correctly, both Hillary’s “change of heart” on the trade agreement and her willingness to certify Colombia’s human rights policy in the aftermath of the alleged repression at Pacific Rubiales coincided with additional financial support of the Clinton Foundation by the company.
If so, the ethical and political implications are obvious and potentially serious:
“Giustra’s donations create the problem that it could be difficult for the public to have confidence that Clinton’s certifications of Colombia’s labor rights record were made on the merit and without bias or partiality,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a national expert on ethics in government. “Public officials need to know that even feelings of gratitude are an inappropriate influence.”
The Clintons’ financial relationship with Giustra “could undermine the public’s confidence in [Hillary’s] decisions,” Clark said, particularly in a case that involves certifying the human- and labor-rights record of a country where Clinton’s own State Department has admitted that “violence, threats, harassment, and other practices against trade unionists continued.”
“It would be one thing if it was the secretary certifying that Finland is complying with human rights standards,” Clark said. “But Colombia?”
Personally, I’m more sympathetic to Colombia then Clark appears to be, and I’m glad we have a free trade agreement with that country. But the merits of the agreement, whatever they may be, do not mitigate Clinton’s potential ethical problem.
And if the ethical problem fits a pattern, it likely will become a political problem — one that dovetails nicely with Clinton’s decision to correspond on her own special email system and, ultimately, to purge tens of thousands of emails.