It's a family affair.

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Clinton Foundation Would Weigh Down a Hillary Presidency

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The Clintons have been targeted by trumped-up scandals from Whitewater to Benghazi. There also are self-inflicted wounds: President Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton's use of private e-mail servers while secretary of state.

They may be on the verge of creating another one: The Clinton Foundation, which has done extraordinary good works over the past 15 years, would present an inherent conflict of interest should she become president, and may be problematic for her even now as a candidate.

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Clinton has suggested that if she is elected, the foundation -- which collects contributions from wealthy interests including foreign governments -- would continue basically as is. "The work that it's done has been extraordinary," she said in March when asked whether there would be any ethical concerns about continuing the foundation. "The answer is transparency."

Ethics experts reject that. They say there wouldn't be any way to avoid the appearance of conflicts if she wins the presidency.

"If Bill seeks to raise large sums of money from donors who also have an interest in U.S. policy, the public will rightly question whether the grants affected United States foreign policy," says Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert at New York University School of Law. Ethics rules, he notes, are "not merely to prevent bad behavior but to foster public trust in the integrity of government choices." He's open, however, to the idea of the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, running the foundation.

But others say any connection is unacceptable. Joel Fleishman, a foundation expert, says the Clintons have to "sever the relationship completely and put it in the hands of independent trustees." They have to pick a leader of "impeccable integrity and let it go its own way in raising money," says Fleishman, who ran a foundation and has written a book on philanthropy.

The Clinton Foundation and its various offshoots have raised about $2 billion from wealthy individuals, corporations -- especially Wall Street -- and foreign governments. Much of its work is widely praised.

A major initiative provides care to poor people in developing countries, chiefly in Africa, to combat H.I.V./AIDS and malaria. It has negotiated with pharmaceutical companies for reduced prices for drugs and diagnostic equipment. It also has programs on clean water, food security and climate change. These efforts have encouraged citizen and volunteer involvement. 

This has not been without controversy. Some of the donors have been influence-seekers, including a Canadian businessman who, according to critics, who may have sought to parlay his Clinton connections to reap business benefits with dictators. The foundation also set up a Canadian subsidiary that effectively skirted some disclosure requirements.

An article in the Wall Street Journal this month raised questions about a financial commitment that the Clinton Foundation made to a for-profit company run by politically connected close friends. 

Some of these issues surfaced during Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state. It's a bigger problem now that she's the leading presidential candidate, and it would be critical if she gets to the White House. The corrective would appear to be to follow Fleishman's advice, separate totally from the foundation and select an unimpeachable leader. The current president, Donna Shalala, a respected former cabinet member and university president, has not said whether she will stay on beyond the end of this year. Chelsea Clinton would not fit the bill for the post.

To be sure, Donald Trump would face huge conflicts of his own, particularly regarding his connection to his business empire, but also when it comes to issues involving the U.S. government, such as, for example, a dispute over a Trump golf course overseas or trademark regulations.

President Barack Obama, his critics notwithstanding, has run a remarkably scandal-free administration; there have been very few ethical lapses.

That's a record that Hillary Clinton, or any next president, should try to emulate. That means separating from the Clinton Foundation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net