MARRAKECH, Morocco -- With its private collection of Arabian horses and a restaurant touting biolight cuisine, the Selman palace hotel in Marrakesh presented an opulent backdrop for Wednesday evening’s reception for Clinton Foundation members and guests.
Busloads of the Clinton Foundation’s members and sponsors were shuttled here -- 30 minutes away from the conference hotel -- across the exotic, palm-lined city’s ancient walled old city. Torches lined the hotel’s gated entrance and a team of security comprised of retired U.S. Secret Service agents triple checked guests lists as they arrived.
What happened at the event, however, remained hidden behind the sprawling resort’s 12-foot-high walls, off limits to the press. When ABC News producers attempted to take pictures of guests arriving at the front entrance, Moroccan police threatened their arrest. The foundation’s spokesman initially professed not to know where the reception was being held, and the location was among the only not included on schedules handed out to the media and published online.
“Due to the structure of this event, this session is closed to press,” it stated.
The secrecy surrounding the reception was a departure from a comparatively free-wheeling Clinton Global Initiative conference -- a three-day event where members of the foundation hear about the results of ongoing charitable projects, and plot the course for new ones. The majority of this conference was open, and unlike some past ones, members of the press were permitted to roam from panel discussion to cocktail party without much hassle. (At a CGI event last year, a New York Times reporter wrote about being watched so closely that a 20-something staffer followed her into the bathroom.)
The Morocco conference is underway at an unusual time for the Clinton Foundation. With Hillary Clinton launching a new presidential bid, and a new book questioning the motivations of some foreign donors to the charity, especially during the period when she was serving as Secretary of State, the foundation has taken pains to push back against perceptions that it is anything but transparent.
During the first panel discussion of the conference, telecom billionaire Mo Ibrahim became the first to address the foreign donation issue that had been weighing on a number of the foundation members and supporters in attendance.
"What is wrong if Saudi Arabia gives money for a farm in Africa? What’s the big deal?" Ibrahim asked. "I just could not understand. I didn’t see anybody from the foundation standing up."
“You should have stood up and really took issue -- what is this money for?... What have you done with it?" he said.
Clinton shrugged off the topic with a light touch. "I just work here, I don’t know," he joked.
"There is one set of rules for politics in America and another set for real life. And you just have to learn to deal with it,” Clinton said, quickly turning to the discussion back to the charity’s efforts.
Foundation officials said the evening reception was behind closed doors to encourage members to openly exchange ideas as they socialized. They noted that few other charities -– if any –- are asked or expected to open the doors of their private functions.
But at least one reporter covering the conference appeared to believe the openness extended to the evening festivities, and lined up to board the idling tour busses as they prepared to take guests to the Selman. Staff members dutifully checked her ID badge when she stepped to the door, and then promptly turned her away.