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Foundation can be floor or trapdoor as Clinton positions herself for 2016

NEW YORK – From Bill Gates to Bono, the world’s celebrity philanthropists gathered here last week for an annual ritual that’s the centerpiece of Bill Clinton’s post-presidency.

This year, though, the former president didn’t stand alone at the center of the Clinton Global Initiative, his attempt to get corporations and billionaires to commit to solving the world’s problems one by one.

His wife stood there with him.

And as Hillary Rodham Clinton privately ponders another race for the presidency in 2016, this year’s annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative seemed to also sum up all the promise of another Clinton campaign, as well as some of the peril.

The former New York senator, looking well-rested and happy eight months after resigning as secretary of state, spoke with passion and humor about one good cause after another that she’ll pursue at the newly renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

What’s more, she spoke to the kind of people who could easily help her raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary for a modern presidential campaign: business leaders, Hollywood types and other assorted millionaires.

Yet she did so in the very same week that the New Republic magazine published an article alleging that Doug Band, the man who long managed the Clinton Global Initiative, traded on his influence with Bill Clinton to win big-money consulting contracts. That story followed a New York Times piece that also criticized the foundation’s management practices during Band’s time there.

Clinton backers dismiss those stories as mere noise that won’t distract from the fact that the foundation, which does much good around the world, will offer Hillary Clinton a strong base from which to do the same in the coming years.

Not surprisingly, though, Republicans look at the Clinton Foundation and see trouble – which they are determined to exploit as 2016 approaches.

Shift in emphasis

Taking to the stage at a Clinton Global Initiative event in Chicago in June, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the foundation her husband founded after leaving the White House was now a joint venture.

“We are so excited and thrilled to have this be a full partnership between the three of us,” including their daughter, Chelsea, she said.

From there, Hillary Clinton announced that she would focus her work at the foundation on three issues: early childhood development, opportunities for women and girls, and economic development.

Last week in New York City, she broadened her agenda, announcing that she would lead an effort to measure the progress of women’s rights worldwide and also work on a partnership aimed at protecting African elephants from poaching.

Incongruous as those last two projects may seem, they’re the sort of do-good, feel-good efforts that could offer Clinton a useful public platform while she considers a presidential run.

“I think this is the perfect place for her at this point,” said Maria Cardona, a Washington-based political consultant who advised the 2008 Clinton presidential campaign, in which the former first lady lost the race for the Democratic nomination to then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. “It’s a place where she can do some very positive public advocacy.”

The foundation gives Hillary Clinton an unencumbered opportunity to work on issues she’s passionate about, said Ellen Tauscher, a former California congresswoman and undersecretary of state during Clinton’s tenure there.

“I think she’s really enjoying herself,” Tauscher said. “She’s having a great time with the president and Chelsea at CGI.”

Clinton’s high-profile work at the foundation contrasts with her New York-centered efforts in the run-up to her previous presidential campaign.

While she’s now taking on issues such as child development and women’s rights, she was, at a comparable point in the 2008 election cycle, just coming off a fight to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and touring the state in preparation for her 2006 race for re-election to the Senate.

‘Much more aggressive’

This time, “she’s being much more aggressive, taking on big issues, saying who she is,” said Chris Lehane, a San Francisco political consultant and veteran of the Bill Clinton White House who says her foundation work should leave her better positioned should she run for president in 2016 than she was in 2008.

Of course, partnering with corporate chieftains and other millionaires won’t hurt, either. And that’s just what the Clinton Global Initiative does.

In addition to Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and U2’s Bono, other big names noticed at last week’s event included actors Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, and Queen Rania of Jordan.

More importantly, while at the Manhattan event, corporations, organizations and individuals made more than 160 big-money commitments to work on projects around the globe. For example, Barclays, the British bank, vowed to extend its reach to poor people. Intel vowed to expand Internet access to women in sub-Saharan Africa. And McDonald’s committed to start promoting healthy fruits and vegetables on its menus.

Such programs not only do a lot of good, but they also give corporations and other wealthy institutions the opportunity to show their interest not just in a past president, but also possibly a future one, at a time when there’s no official Clinton campaign to help fund.

That being the case, “I’m certainly very skeptical, to say the least, about her motives and even more so her husband’s,” said James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo and a Republican.

Republicans in Washington are skeptical, too.

After the New Republic released its cover story on Band on Sept. 22, the Republican National Committee responded with a news release filled with quotes from it, as well as quotes from the earlier Times article in mid-August.

“Clinton’s foundation could become a burden for her 2016 hopes,” the GOP declared.

Band, a Bill Clinton aide since his White House days, started a management consulting firm called Teneo in 2009, taking Bill Clinton on as a paid adviser – and the New Republic said he quickly built a client list that overlapped with the former president’s charitable work.

Foundation-related baggage

For instance, after giving Bill Clinton a philanthropy award, the Rockefeller Foundation gave Teneo a $3.4 million contract. Dow Chemical, which had long been involved in charitable projects through the Clinton Global Initiative, became one of Band’s top clients.

And the MF Global investment firm, run by former New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, signed a $125,000-a-month contract with Teneo – and then went belly-up, costing its investors $600 million.

Bill Clinton announced he would leave his position at Teneo not long after the MF Global meltdown, and the New Republic reports that a rift developed between Clinton and Band, who no longer plays a major role at the Clinton Global Initiative.

But in an interview with CBS News last week, the former president defended his former aide.

“There’s nothing wrong with him starting a business with people he met working for me,” said Clinton, who quickly added that he left Teneo for a good reason.

“It’s easier for me to recommend them if everybody knows I don’t get any money,” he said.

Larger role for Chelsea

Still, it all seems unsavory to Kirsten Kukowski, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

“The mismanagement and conflicts of interest within the foundation are indicative of how the Clintons operate and is part of the baggage tied to Hillary,” Kukowski said.

Republicans are also highlighting the Times article on the Clinton Foundation, which focused on concerns about Band’s work at Teneo and the multimillion-dollar deficits the foundation had run.

Many Clinton backers look at those comments and, in essence, roll their eyes.

“This is the sort of noise that comes with the Clinton name,” said Cardona, the D.C.-based Democratic consultant.

Clinton insiders privately acknowledge, though, that things are changing in the way the foundation is managed. With Band and other staffers from the Clinton White House no longer running the organization, Chelsea Clinton, 33, is taking on a much larger management role, they say, and imposing more discipline on the sprawling charity as it embarks on an effort to raise an endowment upward of $250 million.

Aides to Hillary Clinton did not respond to requests seeking comment for this article. But amid the criticism last week, she kept the focus on the foundation, which, in addition to the Clinton Global Initiative, runs a host of other programs, including efforts aimed at fighting AIDS, poverty and climate change.

Wednesday, for example, she announced a partnership of corporations and foundations that will devote $1.5 billion to helping female entrepreneurs around the world.

“This is such a perfect example of CGI networking,” Clinton said. “Leveraging social capital and real capital; it’s a great combination.”