Bill Clinton’s Business Ties Face Scrutiny

Last June, Bill Clinton took a break from helping his wife run for president to take care of some business of his own. He jetted off to the Black Sea resort of Yalta for an international conference sponsored by one of his good friends: Victor Pinchuk, a billionaire steel magnate and one of the richest men in Ukraine. In recent years, Pinchuk has become a fixture in Clinton's world, in part because Pinchuk has contributed millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, the former president's charity that fights AIDS and poverty. Pinchuk's generosity paid dividends. He was a guest at the inauguration of Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, and he attended Clinton's exclusive 60th birthday bash in New York.

Pinchuk won an even bigger favor when Clinton agreed to speak at the Yalta conference. Clinton dazzled the audience with a powerful address about the global challenges facing Ukraine. But he also inadvertently caused a stir when he was embraced by Pinchuk's father-in-law, Ukraine's former president Leonid Kuchma, whose authoritarian rule had been condemned by the State Department. Three years ago, a Ukrainian government investigation linked Kuchma's regime to the decapitation in 2000 of dissident journalist Georgy Gongadze. When Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, saw a newspaper photo of Clinton and Kuchma at the conference, "I wanted to throw up," she told NEWSWEEK. Clinton, she says, was being used by Pinchuk "to clean up and legitimize Kuchma's legacy." (A Clinton spokesman declined to comment on the ex-president's encounter with Kuchma.)

If Hillary Clinton had been seen with a discredited former autocrat, it would have made front pages across the country. But Bill's Yalta visit went unnoticed outside Ukraine. The trip illustrates the unusual position the former president is in. He is his wife's top political adviser, and Hillary does little to downplay the idea that he would be a notable, if unofficial, presence in her administration. In speeches, she says that she would deploy her husband as a roving ambassador. Yet unlike Hillary, who must report the names of her campaign contributors and how much they give, Bill Clinton is a private citizen and does not have to disclose most details about his charitable and business ventures. His private dealings raise inevitable questions about who might come seeking favors if he and Hillary move back into the White House.

Last week, in response to questions from NEWSWEEK, Bill Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said Clinton is moving to cut his various business ties—including a multimillion-dollar consulting deal with InfoUSA, a controversial telemarketing firm headed by a longtime financial backer of both Bill and Hillary. McKenna says that "the former president is taking steps to ensure that there is an appropriate transition out of his business relationships … should Senator Clinton become the Democratic nominee."

In his postpresidential years, Clinton has worked hard to expand the circle of people who can claim F.O.B. (friend of Bill) status. He has forged close personal and financial ties with Hollywood moguls, corporate executives and current and former foreign leaders. Some of these connections have helped make Hillary and Bill Clinton quite rich themselves. When they left the White House in 2001, the Clintons were all but broke, in part because of more than $2 million in legal debts from the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations. Money is no longer a problem. Like other ex-presidents, Clinton got rich on the lecture circuit and by writing best sellers. A NEWSWEEK review of Hillary's financial disclosure statements shows that as an ex-president, Bill Clinton has earned at least $40.2 million giving speeches in 33 countries.

At the same time, Clinton has used his global travels and unrivaled schmoozing skills to raise billions of dollars for the Clinton Foundation, much of it from wealthy American and foreign individuals. The former president does not disclose all the names of those who have written his charity checks, or how much they gave, nor is he required to. Many private foundations do the same.

Even so, Bill Clinton seems to recognize that some of his relationships could become politically problematic. Aides to the former president recently told reporters Clinton would move to sever his business ties with billionaire Ron Burkle. An entrepreneur with a playboy reputation, Burkle signed up Clinton as a senior adviser to the Yucaipa Cos., Burkle's private investment firm. The arrangement included stakes in Yucaipa partnerships. Little was known about Clinton's profits from this arrangement until last week, when The Wall Street Journal reported that the former president was expected to reap about $20 million when the company bought back his shares. Clinton's spokesman tells NEWSWEEK the amount of his compensation has not yet been determined.

One possible issue that might have affected Clinton's decision to reconsider his business relationship with Burkle: the financier's ties to the Arab emirate of Dubai. One of Clinton's partners in a Yucaipa fund is the Dubai Investment Group, a company closely linked to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai's ruler. Clinton and Maktoum have a warm relationship, and the sheik, along with other Middle Eastern leaders, was a major contributor to Clinton's presidential library.

Bill's Dubai connection is potentially problematic for Hillary. Two years ago, the New York senator denounced the Bush administration when it failed to block a deal that would have handed over operations of six major U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates. (The company eventually withdrew its bid.) This month, Hillary criticized oil-rich foreign governments that use "huge pools of money" to buy up stakes in major U.S. financial institutions. That's a good applause line—but a tough one to deliver with a straight face while her husband has a business partnership with a similar foreign fund. Mark Saylor, a U.S. spokesman for Dubai, tells NEWSWEEK that neither Dubai nor Maktoum would comment on their dealings with Bill Clinton.

Bill's business deals with other friends have also drawn scrutiny. According to Hillary's disclosure forms, he is a consultant to InfoUSA, a data-processing and marketing firm in Omaha. The company, which has paid him $3.3 million in consulting fees, is owned by Vinod Gupta, a billionaire who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Clintons' campaigns and contributed $1 million to the Clinton Foundation. Gupta has given the Clintons the use of his private jet, and has accompanied them on vacation. When Bill Clinton was president, Gupta was a guest in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Gupta's generosity to the Clintons led to a revolt among some stockholders in his company. They are suing InfoUSA, alleging Gupta wasted $900,000 in company funds flying the Clintons around the world and paying the former president huge fees for little work. Neither Gupta nor InfoUSA responded to requests for comment. But last June, Gupta praised Clinton's work for the company. "He helps us meet some of the right people," he told the Omaha World-Herald. "In many speeches, he has mentioned InfoUSA by name." Gupta said that his payments to Clinton weren't wasted. "We get back many times over what is spent on Bill. I would say over the last seven years, easily over $40 million."

Clinton may have another reason to regret his relationship with Gupta. Last year, members of Congress—including Barack Obama—pressed the Federal Trade Commission to investigate allegations that InfoUSA sold personal and consumer data about senior citizens to crooked telemarketers. The FTC would not comment on whether it's investigating; Bill's spokesperson says the former president has "not been following these allegations … If these allegations are true, the appropriate individuals should be held accountable."

There is no shortage of tycoons looking to do Bill Clinton favors. Another is Frank Giustra, a Canadian entrepreneur who founded Lions Gate Entertainment, the movie production company. Giustra has given millions to the Clinton Foundation, and is currently planning a March fund-raising gala for the charity in Toronto.

A spokesman for Giustra tells NEWSWEEK the two men first became acquainted in January 2005, when Giustra organized a tsunami-relief fund-raiser. He asked the former president to provide a videotaped thank you to the event's contributors. The men became friends. Later that year, Giustra, whose broad business interests include mining, was negotiating a deal to mine uranium in Kazakhstan. In September 2005, Giustra and Clinton flew to Kazakhstan on Giustra's jet. Clinton gave a press conference announcing an AIDS initiative with the Kazakh government. He also took the opportunity to praise the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, an authoritarian ruler with a poor human-rights record, for "opening up the social and political life of your country."

At the time, Nazarbayev was campaigning for re-election; Clinton lauded him for promising "free, fair and transparent" elections. After a late-night meeting with Kazakh dissidents, Clinton flew out the next day. One day later, UrAsia Energy, a mining company in which Giustra was a major shareholder and director, signed two "memoranda of understanding" to mine uranium in Kazakhstan. Last year, UrAsia merged with a large Canadian mining company. According to Canadian press accounts, the value of Giustra's stock rose to more than $45 million.

Giustra's and Clinton's spokesmen both say the former president had no part in helping Giustra land the deal. Clinton knew that Giustra had mining interests in Kazakhstan, Clinton's spokesman says, but the men had never discussed details. It could be that Clinton and Giustra both had separate interests and agendas in Kazakhstan at the same time, and Bill was just catching a ride on his buddy's plane. That's what friends are for.

Join the Discussion