The Swiss bank UBS is one of the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the world. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton intervened to help it out with the IRS. And after that, the Swiss bank paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million for speaking gigs. The Wall Street Journal reported all that and more Thursday in an article that highlights huge conflicts of interest that the Clintons have created in the recent past.
The piece begins by detailing how Clinton helped the global bank.
“A few weeks after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, she was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart to discuss an urgent matter. The Internal Revenue Service was suing UBS AG to get the identities of Americans with secret accounts,” the newspaper reports. “If the case proceeded, Switzerland’s largest bank would face an impossible choice: Violate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court. Within months, Mrs. Clinton announced a tentative legal settlement—an unusual intervention by the top U.S. diplomat. UBS ultimately turned over information on 4,450 accounts, a fraction of the 52,000 sought by the IRS.”
Then reporters James V. Grimaldi and Rebecca Ballhaus lay out how UBS helped the Clintons. “Total donations by UBS to the Clinton Foundation grew from less than $60,000 through 2008 to a cumulative total of about $600,000 by the end of 2014, according to the foundation and the bank,” they report. “The bank also joined the Clinton Foundation to launch entrepreneurship and inner-city loan programs, through which it lent $32 million. And it paid former president Bill Clinton $1.5 million to participate in a series of question-and-answer sessions with UBS Wealth Management Chief Executive Bob McCann, making UBS his biggest single corporate source of speech income disclosed since he left the White House.”
The article adds that “there is no evidence of any link between Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in the case and the bank’s donations to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, or its hiring of Mr. Clinton.” Maybe it’s all a mere coincidence, and when UBS agreed to pay Bill Clinton $1.5 million the relevant decision-maker wasn’t even aware of the vast sum his wife may have saved the bank or the power that she will potentially wield after the 2016 presidential election.
But even that wouldn’t make accepting the $1.5 million excusable.
If you’re Bill Clinton and your wife has recently intervened, in her capacity as a cabinet secretary, to help a giant corporation avert a significant threat to its bottom-line, the very least you could do, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety, is to avoid negotiating seven-figure paydays with that same corporation. This is particularly jaw-dropping because ultra-wealthy Bill Clinton has virtually unlimited opportunities to give lucrative speeches to any number of audiences not directly implicated by decisions that his wife made as secretary of state.
But maximizing the Clinton family’s wealth and power requires him to speak before the very wealthiest paymasters. And that’s exactly what the ex-president has done.
As McClatchy noted last month in a more broadly focused article that also mentions UBS, “Ten of the world’s biggest financial institutions––including UBS, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs––have hired Bill Clinton numerous times since 2004 to speak for fees totaling more than $6.4 million. Hillary Clinton also has accepted speaking fees from at least one bank. And along with an 11th bank, the French giant BNP Paribas, the financial goliaths also donated as much as $24.9 million to the Clinton Foundation––the family’s global charity set up to tackle causes from the AIDS epidemic in Africa to climate change.”
One needn’t believe that there’s ever been any quid pro quo to see that this matters.
“Any suggestions that Hillary Clinton was driven by anything but what’s in America’s best interest would be false. Period,” a campaign spokesman told The Guardian. Oh, come on. Clinton may well have thought that intervening on behalf of UBS was good for the U.S. There are reports that the Swiss helped our government in various ways in exchange for shielding the bank from a worst-case scenario.
But this campaign flak cannot possibly know––or expect us to take on faith––that Clinton was not at all influenced by knowledge that acting to benefit the bank could mean seven figures for her family and more for their foundation, whereas advocating against the bank would more than likely eliminate the chance of either. Any normal person would be influenced, if only in spite of themselves, unless they resolved from the beginning that having made a decision in government that directly affected a corporation, they’d never take money from it later even if it offered.
It is a discredit to Bill and Hillary Clinton that they behave as if they believe otherwise.
Why are they indulged in doing so?
Democrats are hurtling toward a farce. The coalition that insists on the corrupting effect of Citizens United and the unlimited campaign contributions it permits is poised to nominate a couple that has seen riches flow from big banks to their personal accounts.
Perhaps it would make sense for Democrats to hold their noses and elevate Hillary anyway if she were just beholden to the telecom or nuclear or airline industries, given their substantial agreements with other positions that she has taken. (Although her disastrous vote to give George W. Bush authority to invade Iraq, and the hawkish positions that she took on both Libya and Syria as secretary of state, are reminders that she is not perfectly aligned with her party’s base.) But big, politically active financial firms are, many Democrats believe, huge obstacles to tackling inequality and pursuing economic justice. (Just look at the likely effect of Clinton’s intervention on behalf of UBS: It probably helped some of the wealthiest Americans to hide taxable assets from the IRS.)
Finance is also the global industry most responsible for the financial crash of 2008. And it is the bane of Occupy, the biggest left-wing protest movement in recent memory.
How can mainstream Democratic Party beliefs about the corrupting effects of money in politics and the perniciousness of Big Finance possibly be squared with elevating as their leaders a couple as cozy with Big Finance as anyone in American politics?
Even Democrats who aren’t concerned about the agenda of Big Finance ought to ask themselves if America is best served by a president and first spouse who care so little about preserving the confidence that the public can reasonably have in the integrity of their actions. They are far from the only members of our elite who’ve put a payday ahead of the common good, but it’s hard to think of a more flagrant example.