Saturday :: Jan 10, 2009

The Corrupt Clinton Foundation - Part 2

by eriposte

UPDATE: Charlie Savage sent in a note to say that the Washington Post editorial was incorrect in saying that Sen. Clinton (who was running for the Senate at the time) supported the project in question back in 2000. Charlie indicates that what then-Senate candidate Clinton supported in 2000 were some property tax breaks that were being discussed for the Carousel mall - which Congel also benefited from. Perhaps he's right, but the Destiny USA project being discussed is a massive environmentally friendly expansion of the Carousel Center Mall - for example, see here, here, here and here. Additionally, as Charlie has reported in his NYT piece, the green bonds were supported by lawmakers from 4 states (including NY), and support for it within NY was bipartisan. Further, I don't see any need to try and link the Clinton Foundation to Sen. Clinton's position in this case because, as Charlie reported, Congel also contributed funds to her campaign and PAC - so why bring in the Clinton Foundation at all? So, unless there is some other compelling evidence, this appears to me to be pretty run-of-the-mill. I applaud the work that went into Charlie's article to extract information on donations and to examine possible connections, but I see no compelling evidence of "pay-for-play" here.

Media Matters' County Fair blog written by Eric Boehlert and Jamison Foser, which is in my must-read list, recently covered a story regarding the Clinton Foundation by New York Times' journalist Charlie Savage. I respect Mr. Savage's past work at the Boston Globe and I don't have any issue with his reporting the facts that he did in his article "A Donor's Gift Soon Followed Clinton's Help". The crux of the story was in its lead:

An upstate New York developer [Richard Congel] donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton’s foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman’s mall project.

However, articles like this have a habit of being magnified by the usual Clinton-bashers to desperately find evidence of ethical or criminal wrongdoing where none exists, as I showed in my response to a previous article in the NYT on the Clinton Foundation. Jamison Foser discussed a recent Washington Post editorial as an example and sums it up nicely (bold text is my emphasis, throughout this post):

Got that?  Hillary Clinton has supported a law giving Congel access to bonds to build a shopping complex in Syracuse since 2000.  Other members of the New York delegation joined her in supporting the the complex.  In 2004 -- four years after Clinton began supporting the law -- Congel gave $100,000 to Bill Clinton's foundation.

And in that, the Washington Post sees a "prime example" of the "appearance of a conflict" that could call both Clintons' motives into question.

The Post would have us believe that in 2000, Hillary Clinton supported a law in hopes that four years later a developer would make a contribution to her husband's foundation that would account for about two one-hundredths of one percent of the foundation's total fundraising.  If that's a quid pro quo, it's a spectacularly unambitious one.

"While Mr. Clinton's fundraising has been an appearance of a conflict waiting to happen with his wife a senator, it will only get worse and more troublesome once Ms. Clinton is confirmed as secretary of state," the Post concludes. This, at least, is hard to argue with: If the Congel donation is the most troublesome thing the Post can find, it's certainly hard to imagine the situation getting less troublesome.

Just one more critical point. Savage says this in his NY Times piece:

The way the legislation was written, Mr. Congel’s Syracuse development, which he agreed to build and run in a way that promotes renewable energy and recycling, was one of just a handful of projects that would qualify.

That claim is however very misleading.

There are plenty of skeptics who have written about Congel's Destiny USA mega-green retail/entertainment complex and whether it deserved subsidizing by the U.S. Government (with bipartisan support). However, back in May 2005, when Amanda Griscom Little of the progressive environmental blog Grist wrote about it, she presented views of skeptics and supporters and observed the following (bold text is my emphasis):

Despite skepticism from a number of Syracuse locals, commercial-development analysts, and renewable-energy experts that the immense and unprecedented scheme can be pulled off, Congel doesn't hesitate to make grandiose predictions for DestiNY, claiming it will attract tourists from around the world and become a paradigm-shifting catalyst for the nation's renewable-energy markets. 


That's not to say that the complex isn't getting any tax breaks. On the contrary, the DestiNY team has managed to secure a staggering raft of tax benefits at every level -- city, county, state, and federal -- with the help of New York politicians on both sides of the party line, including Sens. Hillary Clinton (D) and Charles Schumer (D) and Gov. George Pataki (R). On the federal plane, Clinton and Schumer went to bat last year to add $231 million to the corporate tax bill to finance $2 billion in "green bonds" for eco-friendly shopping developments. DestiNY is expected to reap a significant portion of these funds due to its unparalleled size. 

That is, of course, if the developers can meet the bond requirements, which will be no small task, according to Ashok Gupta, the senior energy economist at Natural Resources Defense Council. "The green guidelines for these bonds are as stringent as I've seen -- hardly a giveaway from a policy standpoint," he told Muckraker. Gupta said he was impressed by the DestiNY team's enthusiasm for the strict guidelines, but wasn't sure the mall builders knew what they were in for. "I have a hard time believing that the DestiNY executives can deliver on their green promise," he said. "These are not developers who have ever attempted a green project, and it's not clear to me that they understand the extent of their commitment, financially and practically." Even developers who have worked on multiple green buildings would find a project of this scale to be extraordinarily challenging, he said.

Rick Fedrizzi, president of the U.S. Green Building Council, who consulted with the DestiNY executives on their green-building goals, was less skeptical. "At first, it had a lot of us in disbelief. I had never seen anything of this magnitude," Fedrizzi told Muckraker. "But the DestiNY team kept pushing us further and further to develop a plan that not only meets but exceeds LEED standards," the council's green-building guidelines, considered the benchmark for the industry. Fedrizzi added that Congel "clearly knows how to execute," as evidenced by his decades of success as a developer. "This is his legacy project. He's dead serious about making this into a world-class showcase."

While any Government spending needs to be scrutinized carefully and justified rigorously (including this one whose merits are certainly worth debating*), it is worth keeping in mind that the bill in question was written in a way where Congel would have to meet some very stringent green-building guidelines to even qualify for the Green Bonds that were in the bill. The bill certainly wasn't written as a free give-away tailored to a contributor - it was written with extraordinarily stringent rules that only the very best of green-building projects would be able to meet - and Congel, by the admission of even skeptics, was in fact aiming to build something that few others had even tried to do.

*Update added.

eriposte :: 9:53 AM :: Comments (5) :: Digg It!