Hillary Clinton is said to be buoyant over her prospects to become the next US President, as Republicans feud over Donald Trump's disruptive campaign and Sen. Bernie Sanders fails to articulate a clear foreign policy, but perhaps the biggest obstacle still confronting the ex-Secretary of State is her own record as a beneficiary of rich and powerful corporate interests.
"The truth is, you can't change a corrupt system by taking its money," says a Sanders's television commercial. And Clinton has left herself open to that charge by profiting off her government experience, racking up $11.8 million in 51 speaking fees in the 14-month period from January 2014 to May 2015 before she became an official candidate for President, according to disclosure records.
For speeches usually lasting between 30 minutes and one hour, Clinton was paid from $100,000 to $335,000, an average around $230,000. Many of her paid speeches were delivered to Wall Street, Big Pharma, Tech and other industries with interests in influencing government policies.
Payments crossing the $300,000 mark came from Qualcomm Inc. ($335,000), the Biotechnology Industry Organization ($335,000), the National Automobile Dealers Association ($325,500), Cisco ($325,000), eBay ($315,000) and Nexenta Systems, Inc. ($300,000). Those amounts are each roughly equivalent to six times the typical American middle-class earnings in an entire year.
It's true that the paid speaking circuit is a common stomping ground for former public officials. For instance, after leaving the Florida governorship and before running for President, Jeb Bush was compensated handsomely for his public speeches. During the same 14-month period between January 2014 and March 2015, Jeb made $1.8 million delivering 43 paid speeches in the US and abroad (London, Prague, Toronto, and Punta del Este, Uruguay). His average compensation per speech was $42,500, less than 20 percent of Clinton's average haul.
And former President Bill Clinton has amassed a fortune speaking to groups all over the world, as listed in Hillary Clinton's disclosure forms for 2014-2015. According to those financial disclosures, Bill Clinton delivered 53 paid speeches from January 2014 to May 2015, totaling $13.3 million. His highest single payouts from speeches during that period came on March 6 and 7, 2014, when he received $500,000 each for speeches to Bank of America in London and Kessler Topaz Meltzer and Check LLP in Amsterdam.
As Larry Noble, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told CBS, "It's not unusual for former elected officials to go out and give speeches and make a lot of money. What the problem now is that they're coming back into government after going out and having been paid large sums by these various special interests."
In the Clintons' case, there is also a potential for the speech-buyers to get what America's most famous power couple in 1993 called "two for the price of one." Since Clinton-42 would surely be a prominent member of a potential Clinton-45 administration, just as Hillary Clinton was a policy adviser during Bill Clinton's presidency, lavishing money on former President Bill Clinton might be an indirect route to influence President Hillary Clinton.
The backdrop of this issue is the unprecedented nature of the Clintons' double-teaming the international business world to leverage millions of dollars from their past experience and potential future power. This conflict of interest has even raised eyebrows in the mainstream news media. On Nov. 22, 2015, both The Washington Post and The New York Times published front-page articles examining Bill and Hillary Clinton's unmatched accumulation of wealth from their careers as public servants.
The Post's investigation found that since Bill Clinton's 1974 congressional bid, the "grand total raised for all [Bill and Hillary's] political campaigns and their family's charitable foundation reaches at least $3 billion. … They made historic inroads on Wall Street, pulling in at least $69 million in political contributions from the employees and PACs of banks, insurance companies, and securities and investment firms. Wealthy hedge fund managers S. Donald Sussman and David E. Shaw are among their top campaign supporters, having given more than $1 million each."
This concern surfaced during the Nov. 14 Democratic presidential debate when Hillary Clinton was pressed about her acceptance of Wall Street largesse and she sought to justify her financial support from Wall Street as somehow related to her work as a New York senator following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
"I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked," Clinton said. "Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country."
Clinton's reference to 9/11 as justification for her accepting large speaking fees and campaign donations from Wall Street quickly raised the hackles of some debate watchers on social media. Later in the debate, Clinton was confronted with one tweet that noted that "I've never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now."
Clinton responded, "Well, I'm sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. So, yes, I did know people. I've had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds say, I don't agree with you on everything, but I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I'm going to support you, and I think that is absolutely appropriate."
After the debate, The New York Times examined this image problem created by Hillary Clinton's Wall Street donations, reporting: "John Wittneben simmered as he listened to Hillary Rodham Clinton defend her ties to Wall Street during last weekend's Democratic debate. He lost 40 percent of his savings in individual retirement accounts during the Great Recession, while Mrs. Clinton has received millions of dollars from the kinds of executives he believes should be in jail.
"'People knew what they were doing back then, because of greed, and it caused me harm,' said Mr. Wittneben, the Democratic chairman in Emmet County, Iowa. 'We were raised a certain way here. Fairness is a big deal.' The next day he endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential race.
"Mrs. Clinton's windfalls from Wall Street banks and other financial services firms - $3 million in paid speeches and $17 million in campaign contributions over the years - have become a major vulnerability in states with early nomination contests. … It is an image problem that she cannot seem to shake."
Meanwhile, The Washington Post article provided an overview of the source of Clinton campaign contributions and how the Clintons have systematically cultivated their donor base of the super-rich on Wall Street since Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992.
Both publications recounted the episode in which Goldman Sachs executive Robert E. Rubin raised funds and opened doors to other Wall Street execs for Bill Clinton's presidential bid and was rewarded with an appointment as Treasury Secretary.
According to the Post article, "Like-minded Wall Streeters such as investment banker Roger Altman joined [Rubin] in the new administration, and early on they helped craft an economic policy - known as Rubinomics - that was applauded by Wall Street but viewed critically by many on the left. When then-first lady Hillary Clinton decided to run for the Senate in New York in 2000, she turned to Rubin and Altman to introduce her to key players on Wall Street."
Many of Clinton-42's economic policies followed the Wall Street interest in "neo-liberalism," a combination of government deregulation of the financial industry and promotion of "free trade" agreements that led US companies to shift manufacturing jobs overseas.
While those tactics were credited with producing a go-go economy in the 1990s, many of the unpleasant consequences came home to roost a decade later in the burst of the Internet bubble in 2000 and then the Wall Street crash in 2008 that cost millions of Americans their jobs, their savings and their homes.
As Hillary Clinton now cites the relative affluence of the 1990s and dispatches Bill Clinton to be a key campaign surrogate, the mixed history of that era is becoming another key issue in the 2016 campaign with the underlying question: How would Hillary Clinton deal with Wall Street and the Big Banks if elected? Publicly, she has taken a relatively tough line on Wall Street.
Reining in Wall Street
As the Post explained, "In her current campaign, Clinton has pledged to rein in Wall Street. She has proposed higher taxes on high-frequency traders and an end to special tax breaks for hedge fund managers, and recently called for more aggressive enforcement of criminal statutes that govern the finance industry.
"But her rhetoric has not alarmed her backers in the financial sector. So far, donors in the banking and insurance industries have given $6.4 million to her campaign and allied super PACs, behind only those in communications and technology, the Post found."
But Wall Street is not the only business sector that has courted Hillary Clinton with lucrative payments for her speeches and welcomed her comments. Our analysis of available recordings and transcripts of Clinton's speeches showed that her paid speeches ranged across a variety of topics, mostly favorable or flattering to the corporate interests being addressed.
For instance, Clinton noted the importance of women in the real estate field during a speech to the Commercial Real Estate Women Network in October 2014. In March 2015, Clinton lauded the work that women have done in technology during a 20-minute speech to eBay, where Meg Whitman was chief executive during its meteoric rise from 1998 to 2008.
As The Washington Post noted, shortly after that speech, Clinton was back before some of the same people seeking donations for her campaign.
"Less than two months later, Clinton was feted at the San Francisco Bay-area home of eBay chief executive John Donahoe and his wife, Eileen, for one of the first fundraisers supporting Clinton's newly announced presidential campaign," the Post reported last May.
All told, Clinton gave nine speeches to the tech sector which paid her at least $2.4 million. (The Washington Post calculates her payments from the tech sector as $3.2 million, the discrepancy apparently reflecting different definitions of what constitutes a "tech company.")
During her speaking engagement with the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in June 2014, Clinton spoke of the need for the US government to encourage "risky" but profitable investments in the pharmaceutical industry and to avoid companies outsourcing biotechnology and pharmaceutical businesses.
Discussing the risky business of producing new pharmaceuticals, she called for affordable "insurance against risk," and said if Washington was not helpful in this effort then perhaps the states that host these companies could come together and make legislation.
"We've got to rationalize our tax system because I don't want to see biotech companies or pharma companies moving out of our country simply because of some kind of perceived tax disadvantage and potential tax advantage somewhere else," she said to a hearty round of applause.
Before the pharmaceutical and health industries, she showed off her expertise gleaned from her experience managing Bill Clinton's ill-fated health reform bill in 1993-94. She gave 10 paid speeches to healthcare organizations, totaling $2.3 million in fees, including $335,000 from the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a quarter-million dollars or more each from Drug, Chemical and Associated Technologies; Cardiovascular Research Foundation; and Advanced Medical Technology Association.
That nearly 38 percent of Hillary Clinton's current personal wealth of approximately $31.3 million was accumulated during the brief period between her departure from the State Department and her run for the presidency underscores the extent to which she is a beneficiary of big-business' financial largesse.
The close proximity between Hillary Clinton's last paid speaking engagement on March 19, 2015 - to the New York section of the American Camping Association for $260,000 - and her announcement as a candidate for president on April 12, 2015, adds further fuel to a suspicion of impropriety.
Since Clinton knew that she would be announcing her candidacy, squeezing in paid speeches almost to the last minute gives the appearance that she was profiting off her possible rise to arguably the most powerful political position on earth.
Indeed, Clinton's inner circle had been dropping hints about her 2016 presidential run since she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008 and, more intensely, after she left the State Department in early 2013.
And though she was not alone in delivering paid speeches until shortly before announcing - for instance, Jeb Bush also delivered paid speeches into March 2015 - the staggering sums in Clinton's case have sharpened criticism of her behavior.
Clinton's campaign did not respond to questions regarding whether the lucrative compensation from speeches raised conflict-of-interest questions. Of the companies paying Clinton some of her highest rates (Qualcomm, Nexenta, eBay, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the National Automobile Dealers Association or NADA), Nexenta and NADA were the only companies to respond to inquiries, although indirectly.
Nexenta was prompt in replying, but said only, "We were very pleased with her participation and presentation at the Nexenta OpenSDx Summit 2014."
A spokesperson from NADA responded to pointed inquiries with a general answer: "The National Automobile Dealers Association is a non-profit and non-partisan business trade group, and does not endorse presidential candidates or their views. Our role is to provide our dealer members with exposure to all facets of business and government that can affect their dealerships. NADA has a long history of inviting speakers from across the political spectrum. Many previous convention speakers, for example, presented views counter to Sen. Clinton. And her views will be counter-balanced by future speakers as well."
Indeed, Republican strategist Karl Rove and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has endorsed Clinton, are scheduled to speak at the 2016 NADA convention in Las Vegas. Jeb Bush was a keynote speaker for the January 2015 NADA convention in San Francisco, although he was a relative bargain, earning $51,000, compared to Hillary Clinton's $325,500 in 2014. (This disparity is likely explained by their relative "celebrity" and their "going rates" rather than any political favoritism by NADA.)
Yet, regardless of whether Hillary Clinton has violated the spirit of government ethics laws by accepting these speaking fees, she faces a challenge trying to convince voters that she will be a champion of middle- and working-class Americans rather than a defender of Wall Street and other corporate interests.
Note on tabulations: Cited amounts represent paid speeches that went to personal income and do not include speeches when compensation was given to a charity, nor do the tallies include money from book royalties.