THE BLOG
02/21/2008 12:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Clinton Scandal Primer

One of the most important topics in the 2008 presidential campaign has been almost completely ignored by the mainstream media: Corruption. Despite all of the claims that Barack Obama has been the beneficiary of media bias, and Hillary Clinton its victim, the reality is exactly the opposite of this, at least on the corruption issue. While the media has swarmed over the very minor Tony Rezko scandal, where there is zero evidence that Obama did any political favors, the press has ignored the long record of political scandals associated with the Clintons, despite the fact that Clinton's service as First Lady is the cornerstone of her claim to be experienced. Today's lead editorial in the Chicago Tribune is one of the rare exceptions to the media silence about Hillary's past scandals.

Below is a guide to the Clinton scandals:

UPDATE: Steve Rhodes has a substantive response to the Tribune editorial, but it's only convincing in showing that Hillary Clinton never did anything illegal (as opposed to unethical).

I've already written about the corruption issue as it relates to the current issue of earmarks. My primary reason for bringing up these scandals is because I think the same standards should be applied to all candidates (I'll get to John McCain's scandals later this year). If Barack Obama is going to be attacked for the very minor Rezko "scandal", then Hillary Clinton deserves the same treatment for her involvement in many more scandals of far greater significance. The books by Carl Bernstein as well as Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta also provide useful (and often damning) information that the public hasn't heard in the media coverage of the campaign.

Even Hillary Clinton's appointment of Maggie Williams (a central figures in one of the Clinton scandals) as campaign manager prompted almost universal silence about the Clinton scandals. We need to re-examine the scandals of the Clinton Era involving Hillary for two basic reasons: 1) these scandals will not be forgotten by the press and the 527s in the general election, so they will become a campaign issue hurting Democrats; 2) these scandals may indicate what kind of administration Hillary Clinton will have, and the danger is that she may appoint people like Williams with this history of misconduct.

For each Clinton scandal (and I don't pretend to cover every single one), I provide a short summary along with my judgment of how serious the scandal was, and the degree of Hillary Clinton's involvement in it (on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest scandal).

Johnny Chung Fundraising Scandal
Level of Scandal: 2
Hillary Clinton's Involvement: 9

Johnny Chung gave $366,000 to the Democratic National Committee, and Hillary Clinton's office was his strongest defender under Hillary's chief of staff Maggie Williams. Williams declared, "This is the one office where I can run it the way I want to," and she gave Chung remarkable privileges during Chung's 51 visits to the White House, including signed photographs with the first lady and the privilege to eat on her tab at the White House Mess. Williams testified, A prime example of his ... misguided behavior was his persistent request to give money directly to Mrs. Clinton. On more than one occasion, I told Mr. Chung this was not possible, although his offer was much appreciated. However, Williams' aide Evan Ryan directly told Chung that the DNC owed the White House $80,000 for a Christmas party and asked for a donation to help pay off the debt. Chung personally gave Williams inside the White House a $50,000 check for the DNC. Two days later, Chung brought in a group of Chinese businessmen into the Oval Office to watch Bill Clinton deliver his radio address, and have their picture taken with him. Chung pled guilty to election law violations for his illegal fund-raising.

Conclusion: The announcement on February 10, 2008 that Maggie Williams would become the new campaign manager for Hillary Clinton was a particularly shocking example of the influence-peddling that Hillary is willing to tolerate. Maggie Williams was Hillary's chief of staff as First Lady, and in that role Williams was deeply involved in an especially sleazy aspect of the Clinton Administration. Chung summarized his view of the Clinton Administration this way: The White House is like a subway -- you have to put in coins to open the gates.

Cattle Futures Trading

Level of Scandal: 2 (5 for cover-up)
Hillary's involvement: 10

Wikipedia summary: "In 1978 and 1979, lawyer and First Lady of Arkansas Hillary Rodham engaged in a series of trades of cattle futures contracts. Her initial $1,000 investment generated nearly $100,000 when she stopped trading after ten months....At one point she owed in excess of $100,000 to Refco as part of covering losses, but no margin calls were made by Refco against her.....In 1995, economists from Auburn University and University of North Florida ran a statistical computer model against a record of Rodham's trades, factoring in Wall Street Journal market data from the time, and concluded in an article published in the Journal of Economics and Statistics that there was only a 1 in 250 million chance that Rodham could have made the profits she did legitimately."

Conclusion: There's no evidence that Hillary Clinton realized that she must have been getting some preferential treatment in order to benefit her and her husband financially. But she's not dumb enough to think that people make free money like this without risk. That's why she tried to conceal these facts. In 1992, Hillary personally warned staffers not to talk about the tax returns showing her profits, and the Clintons tax returns were only revealed up to 1980. The campaign successfully created a fake cover story to explain the jump in net worth, falsely telling reporters that it was a gift from Hillary's parents.(Gerth and Van Natta, p. 114-5) The fact that the Clintons currently refuse to reveal their tax returns strongly suggests they have something to hide, considering that their history of selective concealment of tax information to prevent scandalous information from coming out.

Travelgate

Level of Scandal: 1 for scandal (7 for cover-up)
Hillary Clinton's Involvement: 9

In 1993: "May 19: The White House fires seven employees of its Travel Office, following a review by Associate Counsel William Kennedy III, a former member of the Rose Law Firm. Mr. Kennedy's actions, which included attempts to involve the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service in a criminal investigation of the Travel Office, are sharply criticized."

Conclusion: The Travel Office firings were inept and misguided, but never a huge scandal. Hillary actually wanted to show her good government credentials by cleaning up the questionable activities of the White House Travel Office, never realizing that the workers had close relations to the media. I believe Hillary had only good intentions, even though the fact that Arkansas buddies taking over the office made it seem like a patronage issue. But the key fact is that Hillary lied under oath (or came perilously close) in denying any involvement in the firings. The independent counsel concluded, "The evidence is sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Clinton had a 'role' in the Travel Office firings and that she had 'input' into that decision. Her testimony to the contrary was factually false." Hillary could have easily been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, but proving that she knowingly lied was difficult, and Hillary was never the main target of the investigations, so they gave her a break. Still, the scandal shows Hillary's managerial ineptitude and her propensity to deny responsibility.

Pardongate
Level of Scandal: 5
Hillary Clinton's Involvement: 1

From wikipedia: "In March 2000, Bill Clinton pardoned Edgar and Vonna Jo Gregory, owners of the carnival company United Shows International, for charges of bank fraud from a 1982 conviction (the couple were already out of jail, but the prior conviction prevented them from doing business transactions in certain states). First Lady Hillary Clinton's youngest brother, Tony Rodham, was an acquaintance of the Gregorys, and had lobbied Clinton on their behalf. In October 2006, the group Judicial Watch filed a request with the U.S. Justice Department for an investigation, alleging that Rodham had received $107,000 from the Gregorys for the pardons, in the form of loans that were never repaid, as part of a quid pro quo scheme....Almon Glenn Braswell was pardoned of his mail fraud and perjury convictions, even while a federal investigation was underway regarding additional money laundering and tax evasion charges. Braswell and Carlos Vignali each paid approximately $200,000 to Hillary Clinton's brother, Hugh Rodham, to represent their respective cases for clemency. Hugh Rodham returned the payments after they were disclosed to the public."
"Marc Rich, a fugitive, was pardoned of tax evasion....Critics complained that Denise Rich, his former wife, had made substantial donations to the Clinton library and to Mrs. Clinton's senate campaign....According to Paul Volcker's independent investigation of Iraqi Oil-for-Food kickback schemes, Marc Rich was a middleman for several suspect Iraqi oil deals involving over 4 million barrels of oil."

Conclusion: Bill Clinton's abuse of his pardon power disgusted nearly everyone, but there's no clear evidence of Hillary Clinton's involvement. Still, it's hard to believe that she knew absolutely nothing about what her husband was doing on behalf of her brother and one of her major donors.

Whitewater

Level of Scandal: 1
Hillary Clinton's Involvement: 5

According to Wikipedia: "The Whitewater controversy was the focus of media attention from the publication of a New York Times report during the 1992 presidential campaign, and throughout her time as First Lady. The Clintons had lost their late-1970s investment in the Whitewater Development Corporation; at the same time, their partners in that investment, Jim and Susan McDougal, operated Madison Guaranty, a savings and loan institution that retained the legal services of Rose Law Firm, and may have been improperly subsidizing Whitewater losses. Madison Guaranty later failed, and Clinton's work at Rose was scrutinized for a possible conflict of interest in representing the bank before state regulators that her husband had appointed; she claimed she had done minimal work for the bank. Independent counsels Robert Fiske and Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Clinton's legal billing records; she claimed to be unable to produce these records. The records were found in the First Lady's White House book room after a two-year search, and delivered to investigators in early 1996."

Conclusion: Ultimately, the Whitewater scandal is not about a failed investment; it's about McDougal using his influence with the Clintons to get preferential treatment for a failing bank. It's possible (but ultimately unproven) that Hillary did try to cover up billing records that embarrassed her. They showed that either she was lying about her involvement in the legal work that included the Castle Grande transaction which "were quickly found to be a sham meant to hide from bank examiners that Madison was breaking federal lending rules"(p. 161), or (the most likely case) she was padding her billing on the case in order to make more money for work she didn't do. As Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta conclude, "her invoices were undocumented, inaccurate, or padded."(p. 162)

Hillarycare
Level of Scandal: 1
Hillary's Involvement: 10

Wikipedia summary: "In 1993, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, along with several other groups, filed a lawsuit against Hillary Clinton and Donna Shalala over closed-door meetings related to the health care plan. The AAPS sued to gain access to the list of members of the task force. Judge Royce C. Lamberth found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded $285,864 to the AAPS for legal costs; Lamberth also harshly criticized the Clinton administration and Clinton aide Ira Magaziner in his ruling. Subsequently, a federal appeals court overturned the award and the initial findings on the basis that Magaziner and the administration had not acted in bad faith."

Conclusion: Hillary Clinton's secrecy about her health-care plan reflects a troubling tendency to avoid public disclosure. It probably wasn't illegal, but it hurt the effort to pass health care reform.

Rose Law Firm
Level of Scandal: 1
Hillary Clinton's Involvement: 10

Wikipedia summary: "Clinton continued to practice law with the Rose Law Firm while she was First Lady of Arkansas. She earned less than all the other partners, due to fewer hours being billed, but still made over $200,000 in her final year there. She continued to rarely do trial work, but was considered a rainmaker at the firm for bringing in clients, partly due to the prestige she lent the firm and to her corporate board connections. She was also very influential in the appointment of state judges. Bill Clinton's Republican opponent in his 1986 gubernatorial re-election campaign accused the Clintons of conflict of interest, because Rose Law did state business; the Clintons deflected the charge by saying that state fees were walled off by the firm before her profits were calculated."

Conclusion: It's not reasonable to expect the governor's wife to give up her law practice to avoid contact with anyone doing state business. Still, Hillary clearly had some questionable dealings, and falsely promoted the idea that her profits were walled off from the start. Also, the disappearance of Rose Law records about her legal work (the surface a few days after the statute of limitations on fraud expired) raises serious questions.

Vince Foster Records
Level of Scandal: 1
Hillary Clinton's Involvement: 8

In 1993, "July 20: The Little Rock FBI obtains a warrant to search the office of David Hale as part of its investigation into Capital Management Services. In Washington, Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster drives to Ft. Marcy Park and commits suicide. That evening, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, Clinton aide Patsy Thomasson, and Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff Maggie Williams visit Mr. Foster's office. According to testimony by a uniformed Secret Service officer, Ms. Williams exits the counsel's suite with an armful of folders."

Conclusion: Obviously, the conspiracy nuts who think Vince Foster was murdered are idiots, but Hillary did try to block investigators from seeing all the records in Foster's office, and there is evidence that her current campaign manager, Maggie Williams, removed records from his office.

Summary: I don't consider any of these Clinton scandals, alone or taken together, to be a disqualifying scandal that should prevent her from becoming president. I don't even think these scandals are the primary reasons why people shouldn't vote for Clinton in the 2008 primaries. However, many of these scandals do include real components that show very bad judgment on the part of Hillary Clinton. They are, at the very least, relevant information that the public deserves to know about before they cast a vote.

Crossposted at ObamaPolitics.


Note: I'm the author of a new book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest, but I'm not part of the Obama Campaign.