USA TODAY - The nexus among private companies, Hillary Clinton’s State Department and the Clinton family foundations is closer and more complex than even Donald Trump has claimed so far.
While it is widely known that some companies and foreign governments gave money to the foundations, perhaps in an effort to gain favor, one of the key parts of the puzzle hasn’t been reported: At least a dozen of those same companies lobbied the State Department, using lobbyists who doubled as major Clinton campaign fundraisers.
Those companies gave as much as $16 million to the Clinton charities. At least four of the lobbyists they hired are “Hillblazers,” the Clinton campaign’s name for supporters who have raised $100,000 or more for her current White House race. Two of the four also raised funds for Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid.
USA TODAY reached these conclusions by obtaining federal lobbying data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics for 2009-2013, Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. Reporters then compared the data with donor lists made public by the Clinton nonprofits and federal campaign financial records.
Some of the companies appear to have gotten what they wanted; others did not. The companies, which in several cases provided limited answers to detailed USA TODAY questions, said they had done nothing improper. The charity donations, though questioned by Clinton critics, were all legal.
"We have no record of Secretary Clinton meeting with these individuals as Secretary regarding issues they were lobbying on at the time. The fact remains, Hillary Clinton never took action as Secretary of State because of donations to the Clinton Foundation,” her campaign said.
Among the donors to the Clinton foundations who also used Clinton-connected lobbyists at the Department of State:
• Microsoft has given between $1 million and $5 million to the foundations, as the tech giant also lobbied for visa issues, protection of critical infrastructure and cybersecurity, software industry licensing and government procurement.
• Pfizer, one of the world’s top biopharmaceutical companies, has also given between $1 million and $5 million to the foundations, while lobbying for such issues as intellectual property rights overseas and issues related to medicines in Turkey and India.
• ExxonMobil, the global oil and energy company based in Texas, gave the foundations between $1 million and $5 million. The company lobbied the Department of State for issues involving hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking, oil sands and other provisions.
• The Northeast Maglev, a Washington, D.C.-based company that advocates for high-speed, magnetic levitation rail service in the U.S., donated as much as $100,000 while lobbying the Department of State to help provide support for the issue.
• Mexico TV network Azteca and its affiliates donated as much as $375,000 while lobbying for U.S. business opportunities, an education initiative involving students from the U.S., Mexico and Latin America, and other causes.
While the review did not find instances where companies received special favors, each example illustrates the unique challenge the Democratic presidential nominee would face in dealing with potential conflicts of interest if she were to win the White House.
If elected, Clinton would be the first U.S. president to have had previous involvement with a foundation that raised millions of dollars tied to foreign interests and other donors, said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University.
To the extent that wealthy presidential candidates have been philanthropists, they typically relied on their own fortunes. For instance, H. Ross Perot, the billionaire businessman who ran as an independent in 1992, has self-funded his private foundation’s giving, disclosure records show.
In contrast, the Clinton nonprofits have been intertwined with the U.S. and global power structure. They have received millions of dollars in state or private contributions linked to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kazakhstan and other nations whose interests at times conflict with those of the U.S.
Millions more have been donated by U.S. companies and special interest groups, many of which stood to benefit from decisions made by the Department of State.
“When you couple all of these activities together, it gives an unseemly appearance that this was another way for Clinton foundation donors to try to get what they wanted,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog. “I don’t see any quid pro quos. But I do think these are sophisticated lobbying operations by Clinton foundation donors trying to leverage Department of State support for whatever their pet projects are.”
Former president Bill Clinton announced in August that if his wife were elected, he would step down from the foundation’s board and no longer raise money for it. The foundation would also accept contributions only from U.S. citizens, permanent residents and U.S.-based independent foundations, while barring foreign and corporate donations, he said.
Responding to USA TODAY questions, Hillary Clinton’s campaign said she’s made no announcement about how she would deal with past donors to the foundation who might lobby her potential administration. Would these lobbyists be allowed to join her administration, a practice the Obama administration partly blocked? Would any restrictions be placed on past foundation donors?
Trump could face his own conflict of interest issues if the Republican presidential nominee were to win the White House. The businessman and reality TV star has business ties to companies both domestically and internationally, including Muslim nations in the Middle East. Trump has suggested that his children and business associates would run the Trump Organization if he were elected president.
“We’ve had wealthy presidents before, John Kennedy and FDR. But their wealth was much less, and was mostly domestic,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonpartisan government watchdog. “Trump would be making foreign policy decisions that would be having an immediate impact on his personal wealth.”
Since its founding in 1998, the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has grown into a global organization with more than 1,000 workers and volunteers in dozens of countries worldwide.
Related entities include the Clinton Global Initiative, which started in 2005 and through this year held annual meetings of world leaders and philanthropic companies and individuals who pledged commitments to act on global education, health care and other challenges.
Donors have included high-profile lobbyists and political operatives who have supported or worked for the Clintons over the years. John Podesta, Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman and a co-founder of the lobbying firm The Podesta Group, contributed between $1,000 and $5,000 to the foundation, the nonprofit’s disclosures show.
In all, 181 foundation donors lobbied State during Clinton’s leadership tenure, Vox reported last year.
These relationships and giving on their own aren’t illegal, or even unethical. But critics, including Trump, have argued they at least pose potential conflicts of interest.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer's relationship with Clinton and her organizations shows the depth of the interrelationships.
In 2012, as the Clinton-led Department of State worked with the U.S. trade representative on a new trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry was watching.
Drug companies potentially stood to lose millions of dollars if the Trans-Pacific Partnership made it easier and faster for generic drugs to come to market in emerging nations.
“One of the main limitations on our operations in some countries outside the U.S. is the lack of effective intellectual property protection for our products,” Pfizer said in Securities and Exchange Commission filings during 2012-2013. But the situation “has been improving” through “international and U.S. free trade agreements in recent years,” the company said.
Pfizer called on Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, an international law firm that has long handled some of the company’s government lobbying. Akin Gump partner and international trade expert Brian Pomper was among the representatives who lobbied the Department of State on Pfizer’s behalf on “issues relating to intellectual property protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement,” lobbying disclosures show.
Pomper went on to become a key fundraiser for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, raising at least $100,000 and being dubbed a Hillblazer.
Pfizer also pledged money in 2009 and 2013 to support Clinton foundation programs designed to lower the cost of HIV drugs in developing nations and enhance medical care in South America.
As the Trans-Pacific Partnership was being negotiated in 2012, Clinton said during a speech in Australia that the deal "sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field."
However, Clinton last year said she would not support the deal.
“There is absolutely no connection between Pfizer’s philanthropic work and Akin Gump’s advocacy on behalf of the company for the protection of intellectual property rights around the world. To suggest otherwise is baseless, inaccurate, and misleading,” Pfizer said.
The company’s contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative began in 2006 and amounted to $1.07 million in all since then, including $240,000 during Clinton’s Department of State tenure, Pfizer said.
Akin Gump said the law firm has worked with Pfizer for more than 20 years. “Since early 2007, Mr. Pomper has been advocating on their behalf for the defense and furthering of intellectual property rights. Characterizing this relationship in any other way is completely inaccurate,” the law firm said.
USA TODAY found similar lobbying at the Department of State by other lobbyists who did fundraising for Clinton. For years, Microsoft lobbied the Clinton-led Department of State for issues related to the nation’s visa program for foreign workers — a key concern for tech firms seeking high-skill employees — along with other measures that would be good for business.
One of the representatives who lobbied on Microsoft’s behalf was Frederick Humphries Jr., the company’s corporate vice president for government affairs. He has also been named a 2016 Hillblazer for his fundraising efforts on Clinton’s behalf.
At the same time, Microsoft was heavily involved with Clinton’s foundation. The company gave money in 2011 and 2012 to support educational programs that would benefit students and help broaden digital literacy education, Clinton foundation announcements show.
Microsoft separately hired Bill Clinton to deliver two speeches, including a Washington, D.C. address given in July 2010, while the company was lobbying the Department of State. Microsoft paid him a $225,000 honorarium for that speech, and $175,000 for another he delivered in Las Vegas four years later.
Spokeswoman Kathryn Stack said Microsoft declined to comment.
It’s difficult to determine definitively whether companies or their lobbyists have benefited from a relationship with the Clintons. What’s more clear is how some of those relationships could open her to attacks over perceived favoritism if she’s elected president.
During her current campaign, Clinton issued a statement saying she would push for investment in a “world leading passenger rail system.”
One advocate in that sector is The Northeast Maglev, a Washington D.C.-based company seeking support and funding for high-speed magnetic levitation trains and rail lines capable of whisking passengers to destinations in far less time.
The company’s chief executive and some of its lobbyists also have been involved in contributing or raising campaign funds for the Clintons, in one case since the mid-1990s.
CEO Wayne Rogers contributed more than $200,000 personally and through a company called Synergics Energy Development to then-president Bill Clinton sometime in 1995 and 1996, The Baltimore Sun reported in 2007.
The contributions came after the Clinton administration tapped Rogers to accompany then-U.S. Energy secretary Hazel O’Leary on an overseas trade mission, the Sun reported.
USA TODAY’s review found more recent connections between the company and the Clintons.
The Northeast Maglev contributed as much as $100,000 to the Clinton foundation. Additionally, Rogers and his wife hosted a December 2015 fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. He’s also been named a Hillblazer for his campaign fundraising success.
Matthew Bernstein, one of the lobbyists who pressed the company’s cause at the Department of State during 2012, is a Hillblazer. He also raised at least $100,000 for Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, according to a review of financial disclosures by the non-partisan group Public Citizen.
During a 2011 trip to Japan by then-secretary of State Clinton, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said the Japan Bank for International cooperation would help fund the first phase of a U.S. magnetic levitation train project, Agence France Press reported.
Bernstein did not respond to questions USA TODAY emailed to DLA Piper, the law firm where he works. In a written statement, Rogers said: “The Northeast Maglev has a well-established record of advocating to federal, state, local officials and the public to make high-speed ground transportation a reality in the U.S.”
Flynn, the president of Common Cause, said if Clinton becomes the nation’s 45th president, “she does need to think about what kinds of things she’d put in place to assure the public these 6,000-plus donors to the foundation don’t get improper access.”
Contributing: Brad Heath, Nick Penzenstadler
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc
Copyright 2016 USA TODAY