Kill Bill: Sweetheart Deal

Published: Wed, 12/24/2008 - 16:43 Updated: Tue, 01/06/2009 - 09:14

Sanjay Kapoor, Hadnews, Delhi

In September 2005, former US President Bill Clinton came on a 14 hour trip to UP’s capital, Lucknow. The UP government led by the then chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his close associate, Amar Singh, mounted an impressive programme in his honour. The show was ostensibly meant to elicit Clinton's support in garnering investments for the industry starved state. At that time, it was rumoured that millions were spent to put together a programme and dinner befitting a maharajah of the yore. Opposition parties were critical of the ostentation and wanted to know from the government and the host, UP Development Corporation, about the purpose of the programme and the total money that had been spent in it. It was alleged by Yadav's detractors that Clinton had been paid more than Rs 10 crore to visit Lucknow and to give credibility to Amar Singh's enterprise.

There were no answers from the government despite repeated questioning by Hardnews and other journals about who picked up the tab for Clinton’s visit. This correspondent, during his visit to the US in mid-2007, made an effort to find out from the Clinton Foundation about the payment Clinton had received for the trip. Some of the questions posed to the Foundation included identity of the host in UP, fee for the visit etc. Expectedly, there was no response.

After more than a year of stonewalling, the Clinton Foundation, as part of an agreement with the team of President Elect Barack Obama, agreed to lift the veil from the long concealed donor list. Clinton agreed to do a Full Monty to help his wife, Hillary Clinton, to join Obama's cabinet as Secretary of State.

The list of donors has helped in putting the dots together about Bill Clinton’s amoral enterprise and how he raked in copious funds by camouflaging influence peddling and greed with high sounding philanthropic ideals. A casual glimpse at the list of more two lakh donors read together with plethora of reports about Clinton’s peccadilloes since he left office would show how the Foundation found its funding. Many of the donors suggest quid pro quos or payment for services rendered.

A deeper analysis would show why many donors agreed to pay. If Clinton shows up as the pied piper of Bethlehem then the reasons are obvious. Clinton’s extraordinary status and charisma opened doors for all those who were part of his charmed circle. A well-documented case is that of Canadian Investor, Frank Giustra, who tied the fortunes of his mineral enterprise with that of the Clinton Foundation. So impressed was Giustra by Clinton’s ability to open the doors for him that he gave his aircraft for his frequent travel abroad. This was perhaps a clever devise to travel with the former president wherever he went. So Clinton got him networked with the Kazakhistan president and the Uzbeks to help him out in the mineral business. Giustra was able to clinch a uranium deal with the Kazakhs courtesy Clinton’s mediation. He later paid $31.3 million to the Clinton Foundation.

There were several like Giustra who became part of Clinton’s merry band. Uncannily, they were of a certain “type”. Nearly all of them were politically ambitious, driven, dubious. For them, this association could globalise their money-making operations, legitimise their dubious businesses and activities by associating with philanthropy -- like fighting HIV/AIDS -- and generally have a jolly good time. In a controversial article in Vanity Fair titled, ‘The Comeback Id’, Todd S Purdum says: “Clinton has blended the altruistic efforts of his philanthropy with the private business interests of some of his biggest donors in ways that are surpassingly sloppy, if not unseemly, for any former president.”

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The list of sweetheart deals is endless. Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former president, Leonid Kuchma, is a case. Pinchuk has been part of Clinton’s HIV/AIDS initiative, but this relationship goes deeper. Purdum says Clinton created a “self-reinforcing network of rich, personal, charitable, political, and business supporters” after he left the White House. What has Clinton done in return? A close friend, someone who benefited enormously from this relationship, was Ron Burkle. Clinton helped him earn millions by providing him the right introductions and raising his profile.

He may have earned goodwill by providing inexpensive treatments for HIV/AIDS patients in Africa, Asia, etc. At the face of it, Clinton’s initiative to provide inexpensive drugs to the poor in Africa was meant to hurt the pharma majors; ironically, it’s they who have shown up in big numbers when it came to donations to the foundation. Clinton’s shake-up of the global pharmaceutical industry led to corporate mergers/acquisitions. The US president’s HIV/AIDS funds, PEPFAR, too, were influenced by Clinton Foundation initiatives -- a lot of it going into the companies backed by him. “If former President Clinton is making decisions about where to put the charitable efforts of the Clinton Foundation based even partly on where he’s likely to benefit personally, or see his friends benefit, that clearly is a classic conflict of interest,” says Aaron Dorfman, head of US-based National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy.

So how did Amar Singh benefit? There is little clarity about how he paid money to the foundation; there are inferences that can be drawn from his own statements after his contribution showed up in the declared donor list. Singh says someone else put money on his behalf. It is possible that he may be hinting at Clinton’s close friend who accompanied him from the US. Amar Singh may be hinting at hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal, but this seems unlikely. If Singh really claims that this is not his money then he should encourage the Centre to send its Enforcement Directorate to check from the foundation about whose money it is. What compounds Amar Singh’s problems is that he declared Rs 38 crore as the value of his assets – surely, he can’t be giving away Rs 20 crores out of it.

Amar Singh’s reason for contributing in the Clinton Foundation is a little different from that of Burkle, Giustra and others. He, or anyone who he has been batting for, has benefited considerably from Clinton’s association. A high powered government investigation would reveal the contours of this relationship. What needs to be investigated in the case of Amar Singh’s payment is whether the money to the foundation was given from the coffers of UP Development Corporation?