Like countless people before him, Frank Giustra's first meeting with Bill Clinton was a life-altering event indelibly etched in his memory. "We hit it off right away," Giustra recalls. "We hit it off for a whole number of reasons. We had a very similar upbringing. We had similar interests in books. Pretty soon, we were having a great conversation. I think he liked me."
Giustra was experiencing the famous Clinton connection, the tractor beam of personal magnetism that Clinton has deployed to pull people into his orbit since his earliest days in Arkansas. Back then, they were people like Mack McLarty, the well-to-do kindergarten classmate who became Clinton's first White House chief of staff, and Jim McDougal, the local banker and real estate investor who was the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater land deal and eventually wound up in jail. In Arkansas the stakes were comparatively small. Clinton had little money, and his admirers didn't have a whole lot more. Today, in his post-presidency, Clinton has built up a multibillion-dollar family foundation with a global reach. He may soon be back in the White House. The people he solicits are the sort who gravitate to Davos, not Little Rock—people like Frank Giustra.
Giustra is a billionaire mining magnate from Vancouver who met Clinton in 2005 aboard his private jet, which he had lent the former president for a trip to South America. (Clinton really must like Giustra—or his jet—an awful lot, because he borrowed it 25 more times, according to the Washington Post.) Somewhere in the air between Little Rock and Bogotá, Giustra realized, as so many had before him, life would be more glamorous, important, and fun with more Bill Clinton in it: "I said to him, ‘Hey, tell me more about what the Clinton Foundation does.' "
Before long, Giustra had pledged $100 million, established a Canadian arm (the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership), and joined the Clinton Foundation's board. By his own telling, his life has been utterly transformed. "I'd been doing charitable work my whole adult life but on a very small scale," he says. "Then I met Bill Clinton. Just hanging out with him and seeing how he had dedicated his life to this—I know this sounds cheesy, but it's true—he inspired me."
Giustra now sees himself as Canada's answer to Andrew Carnegie and intends, as Carnegie did, to give away his fortune apart from what he requires to live on. The vehicle for his giving shouldn't come as a surprise. "In the philanthropic sense," he says, "all my chips are on Bill Clinton."
Although few people outside the mining industry had heard of Giustra until recently, he's emblematic of the class of plutocrats with whom Clinton has surrounded himself since leaving office. He also represents a new kind of political problem sure to dog Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. As the author Peter Schweizer documents in his book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, Giustra's globe-trotting adventures with Bill Clinton have coincided with lucrative business deals.
In Colombia, where his investments include oil, timber, and coal mines, Giustra dined one evening in 2010 with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who both met with Colombia's president the next day. Soon after, one company in which Giustra holds a stake "acquired the right to cut timber in a biologically diverse forest on the pristine Colombian shoreline," Schweizer writes, and another was granted valuable oil drilling rights.
A similar situation had unfolded in Kazakhstan in 2005. Giustra and Clinton jetted in to dine with the country's authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Days later, Giustra's mining company signed an agreement giving it stakes in three state-run uranium mines in addition to those it controlled in the U.S. After a $3.5 billion merger, the company was eventually acquired by the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom. Because uranium is a strategic asset, the sale required (and received) approval from multiple U.S. agencies, including the Department of State, then run by Hillary Clinton.
Giustra insists these deals were on the up-and-up and Bill Clinton played no role. "He's shown up in two places where I've done business," he says, "but I've traveled to countless countries around the world with him and put money into [charitable] programs in places I have zero business interests in." While Giustra hasn't done charity work in Kazakhstan, he says a deal of that scale is hashed out over many months and didn't require Nazarbayev's permission. He adds that he sold his stake in the uranium mining company two years before Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, and he agreed to share documents with Bloomberg Businessweek that would prove this, although a week later he hadn't produced them.
Previous Friends of Bill have sometimes fallen out of favor when deemed a liability. Ron Burkle, the billionaire supermarket magnate, is the most famous example. Before Giustra, Burkle was the one flying Clinton around in a private jet and enjoying his attention and companionship. That relationship began to sour in 2007 with Hillary's bid for the White House. According to press reports, Burkle's business ties to foreign governments were part of the reason for the split.
Giustra professes to have no concern that politics might prompt Clinton to jilt him, too. "I don't think it's going to happen," he says, "but if for whatever reason Clinton walked away from this, I would just change the name of the damn thing, and I would carry on. I'm dead serious."
Burkle, too, once seemed to regard himself as impervious to political attacks. But he changed his mind. As he complained to Businessweek in March 2010, "If someone wanted to embarrass [Clinton], I got thrown in it, too."
What looms as a greater threat to Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions than the details of the Russian uranium transaction is that Giustra is the first of what may be a procession of similar figures who will be in the spotlight between now and Election Day. That's because anyone with the means to give millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation likely also has global financial interests affected by U.S. policy or, at the very least, would benefit from a favorable relationship with the Clintons. As Giustra himself notes, "He's one of the best brand names in the world."
The potential conflicts of interest are nearly limitless—and so is the potential for political damage. According to a study by Vox, a news and policy analysis website, 181 contributors to the Clinton Foundation also lobbied the State Department while Hillary Clinton ran it. That's enough to furnish several more volumes of Clinton Cash, should Schweizer have the fortitude to produce them.
On May 5, the Clinton campaign rolled out a website, the Briefing, to attack Schweizer and rebut the book's insinuations of corruption. But the damage Hillary Clinton has sustained is largely self-inflicted. Although the Clinton Foundation signed an agreement with the White House to disclose its donors as a condition of her becoming secretary of state, it hasn't fulfilled the pledge. A New York Times investigation of Giustra's uranium mining deal turned up donors whom the Clinton Foundation failed to disclose. Bloomberg found an additional 1,100 undisclosed foreign donors. The Boston Globe turned up even more.
This may help explain why a majority of independents in a May 5 New York Times/CBS News poll said that although Hillary Clinton is a "strong leader" who "shares their values," she is "not honest and trustworthy."
Improving her image will be a challenge in light of the scrutiny yet to come. The Clinton Foundation has announced it will continue accepting money from select foreign governments and won't disclose the identities of all its foreign donors. Bill Clinton told NBC News he would keep giving paid speeches because "I gotta pay the bills."
Voters will have to take it on faith that these arrangements are as innocent as the participants claim. Giustra, for one, sounds doubtful they will. "If I didn't know me, and I wasn't there," he says, "I would think, Oh my God, there is some connection between all the good stuff that's happening with Giustra and his donations to the Clinton trips." If Hillary Clinton is going to make it to the White House, she'll need to convince the country otherwise.