Contributions to presidential libraries have long seemed ripe for abuse. And in an undercover report by the Sunday Times of London this past weekend, a lobbyist demonstrated just why. With a concealed camera capturing the meeting, the lobbyist explained to a potential foreign client seeking access to senior administration officials that he ought to donate “a couple of hundred thousand dollars or something like that” to President George W. Bush's presidential library to show that he's "serious."
The report has sparked investigations by both Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, where the lobbyist -- Stephen Payne -- sits on the advisory council. But it has also shined a light on fundraising for presidential libraries, which is unregulated.
Four months after a site for the library was selected, and the president said he was considering whether to disclose contributions or accept foreign contributions, the policy remains unclear. The president of Southern Methodist University, the library's future home, has put the price tag for the complex at $250 million.
During a press conference in late February, President Bush said the library would "probably take some foreign money," but the policy hadn't yet been developed. As for disclosing contributors, "We'll look at the disclosure requirements and make a decision," he said. "There's a lot of people -- or some people; I shouldn't say 'a lot' -- some people who like to give and don't particularly want their names disclosed, whether it be for this foundation or any other foundation. And so we'll take that into consideration."
Southern Methodist University referred calls to Dan Bartlett, the former counsel to the president who is serving as spokesman for the library foundation. Bartlett and the White House did not respond to ProPublica's requests for comment.
Bartlett did tell the Dallas Morning News yesterday that the foundation would not accept foreign contributions while Bush remains in office, but whether donors will be disclosed remains unclear. Formal fundraising has not yet begun, he told the Chicago Tribune.
President Bill Clinton didn't accept donations from foreign governments for his presidential library while he was in office, Skip Rutherford, who was president of the Clinton Foundation in 2000, told us. Rutherford couldn't remember if the policy meant donations from foreign citizens also were prohibited. As far as financial disclosure was concerned, that was "up to the donor," he said. Among the donors who contributed to the Clinton Foundation during the administration was the ex-wife of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who gave $450,000. Clinton subsequently granted Rich a pardon during his final days in office.
The Clinton Foundation still hasn't revealed all of its donors, causing controversy during Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) presidential run. Foreign donors, including the royal family of Saudi Arabia and a Canadian mining financier, were a particular source of controversy.
Don Wilson, who once headed President George H. W. Bush's library foundation, said that foundation wasn't created and didn't begin raising funds until 1993, after Bush lost his bid for reelection.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced a bill in 2007 to require the disclosure of contributions to presidential libraries. It easily passed the House with broad bipartisan support but has stalled in the Senate for the past year.
Payne, the lobbyist, has said in a lengthy statement (PDF) provided to reporters that the Times took his comments out of context and "attempted to entrap me into alleging that an illegal relationship could be established."
The Times secretly videotaped a meeting between Payne and a Kazakh politician named Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, who pretended to be representing the former president of Kyrgyzstan and said he was looking to meet top administration figures. The Times reported Payne boasted to Dosmukhamedov, who goes by Eric Dos, of his connection to Bush and other administration officials, showing pictures of himself clearing brush with the president at his Texas ranch. An undercover Times reporter was also present at the meeting.
Payne says he clearly counseled Dos that there could be no explicit promise of access for contributions. "That would be bribery in this country," he wrote to Dos in an e-mail (PDF) late last week before the Times confronted him with the videotape. Payne provided reporters with copies of the e-mails because he said they demonstrate his "consistent responses that there could be no quid pro quo."
Payne was apparently under the impression that the foundation would accept a foreign contribution.
"The current President’s library foundation will most likely accept foreign donations (because his father did)... but they will not start taking in funds for several more weeks," he wrote in another e-mail to Dos. "The donation will be done publicly and must be in the form of a check or wire and will be done publicly in [the former president of Kyrgyzstan's] name unless he wants to be anonymous for some reason?"