-- After his wife became Secretary of State, former President Bill Clinton began to collect speaking fees that often doubled or tripled what he had been charging earlier in his post White House years, bringing in millions of dollars from groups that included several with interests pending before the State Department, an ABC News review of financial disclosure records shows.
Where he once had drawn $150,000 for a typical address in the years following his presidency, Clinton saw a succession of staggering paydays for speeches in 2010 and 2011, including $500,000 paid by a Russian investment bank and $750,000 to address a telecom conference in China.
“It’s unusual to see a former president’s speaking fee go up over time,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office under President George W. Bush. “I must say I’m surprised that he raised his fees. There’s no prohibition on his raising it. But it does create some appearance problems if he raises his fee after she becomes Secretary of State.”
Public speaking became a natural and lucrative source of income for Clinton when he returned to private life in 2001. Records from disclosure forms filed by Hillary Clinton during her tenures in the U.S. Senate and then in the Obama Administration indicate he took in more than $105 million in speech fees during that 14 year period.
That steady flow of income has come under scrutiny in recent days, as it formed an element of a book by author and conservative think tank fellow Peter Schweizer called “Clinton Cash,” due for release in coming days. ABC News received an advanced copy of the book, which highlights instances where domestic and foreign companies with pending interests before the State Department made large donations to the Clinton’s charitable enterprises or, in some cases, helped underwrite the former president’s speeches. The book offers no proof that Hillary Clinton took any direct action to benefit the groups and interests that were paying her husband.
An independent review of source material by ABC News uncovered errors in the book, including an instance where paid and unpaid speaking appearances were conflated. Schweizer said the errors would be corrected. But those same records supported the premise that former President Clinton accepted speaking fees from numerous companies and individuals with interests pending before the State Department.
A spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment from ABC News, but the campaign’s leadership has been very aggressive in attacking the premise and content of the book. John Podesta, the campaign chairman, told PBS, "He's cherry-picked information that's been disclosed and woven a bunch of conspiracy theories about it.”
During her first visit to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate Monday, Hillary Clinton brushed off other finance-related allegations referenced in "Clinton Cash" about the Clinton Foundation's acceptance of donations from foreign governments, dismissing them as being a "distraction" from the issues of her campaign.
"Well, we're back into the political season and therefore we will be subjected to all kinds of distractions and attacks and I'm ready for that. I know that that comes unfortunately with the territory," Clinton told reporters.
When Hillary Clinton took over as Secretary of State, Bill Clinton's attorney, David E. Kendall, drafted guidelines intended to help him avoid conflicts as he continued to accept payment for speeches.
“l am writing to describe the voluntary steps, above and beyond the requirements of law and ethics regulations, that President Clinton intends to take to assist Senator Clinton to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with her duties as Secretary of State,” Kendall wrote.
The rules required the State Department’s ethics officials to review and approve speaking requests.
In practice, there were few if any instances where ethics officials inside the State Department asked the former president to refuse to accept payment for a speech. Hundreds of pages of emails, first obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the right-leaning group Judicial Watch, show that requests from Clinton’s personal office to the State Department for approval of speaking engagements were almost always granted.
In October 2010, for instance, Clinton accepted $225,000 to give a speech in Jamaica sponsored in part by the Irish telecom firm Digicel. Just weeks earlier, Digicel had submitted an application to USAID, an agency overseen by the State Department, for millions of dollars in grant money to fund a mobile-phone money transfer service in Haiti. Two months after the speech, Digicel received the first installment of grant money. The company’s chairman, Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien, was also a major contributor to the Clintons' charitable enterprises.
A spokeswoman for Digicel told ABC News that its sponsorship of the Jamaica speech had nothing to do with the company’s other projects. To imply otherwise, said spokeswoman Gillian Power, “suggests an association of unrelated events which create a misleading representation of Digicel and its founder, Denis O’Brien in relation to their collaboration with President Clinton in developing Haiti.”
“This sponsorship is just one of many that Digicel supports and falls under a large investment in a significant number of activities across the areas of sports, culture and the community – all of which are designed to foster development,” Power said. “President Clinton and Denis O’Brien’s relationship was founded on their common interest in developing Haiti – a goal which they continue to work together to achieve.”
The former president collected large payments from companies with global interests such Canada’s TD Bank, which had an interest in the Keystone Pipeline, a subject of intense lobbying in Washington. In just one week in March of 2011, Clinton collected $1.3 million giving speeches in Nigeria, Brazil and Grand Cayman.
One instance where the State Department did raise questions about a speech recipient came in 2012, when President Clinton requested to speak at an aviation conference sponsored in part by an organization called the Shanghai Airport Authority. The audience was billed as “6,000 business leaders, government officials, and high net worth individuals.” The State Department ethics officer, Kathryn Youel Page, flagged the request in an email back to the former president’s office indicating the sponsor had ties to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government.
“I don't believe we've previously cleared acceptance of fees from PRC-linked entities, but could consider this variation,” she wrote.
Clinton did not accept the fee.
This story was updated to include comments from Digicel.