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Jeff Gerth: Hillary Clinton’s Top Five Clashes Over Secrecy

The latest flap over her private emails as secretary of state is far from the first time she’s been accused of lacking transparency.

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Hillary Clinton speaking to the American Bar Association on the importance of voting rights, 2013.
Image from Flickr user Steve Rhodes.

By Jeff Gerth
By arrangement with ProPublica.

Back in April of 2007, when she was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination for the first time, then-Senator Hillary Clinton lashed out at the secrecy of the George W. Bush administration.

She told a New Hampshire audience that if elected she would implement a “plan to enhance accountability and transparency” and “to replace secrecy and mystery with openness.” One part of her plan: “It’s time our government went fully online as well.”

She lost her White House bid. But 20 months later, before Barack Obama took that job and she became secretary of state, she set up a private computer server registered to her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., to handle all her official, as well as private, emails for the next four years. Her decision — a secret until earlier this month — impeded efforts by the press and others to review State Department actions.

Today it is Hillary Clinton’s record of transparency that has come under fire. At a press conference Tuesday, she acknowledged that in retrospect “it would’ve been better for me to use two separate phones and two email accounts.” She has asked the State Department to release her official emails, a process that could take months.

Few public figures have been as scrutinized as Hillary Clinton. Sometimes her disclosures go beyond what is required, but she’s also racked up a reputation for secrecy that at times has returned to haunt her.

Here are five examples covering the last two decades. Some are drawn from a 2007 book I did, with Don Van Natta Jr., entitled Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Little Brown & Co.) Clinton’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“You’ll never work in Democratic politics again,” the lawyer, Loretta Lynch, says Clinton told her.

1) 1992: The Commodity Trades

During Bill Clinton’s first run for the White House, his campaign declined to release all of the couple’s tax returns. Later it emerged that the campaign had weighed requests from the press and decided not to do so, because a few of the returns showed Hillary Clinton’s spectacular success in commodities trading, in which she made almost $100,000 from an initial investment of $1,000 in a matter of months for a return of almost 10,000 percent. Hillary Clinton threatened a campaign lawyer who had access to the material with retribution if she released the data: “You’ll never work in Democratic politics again,” the lawyer, Loretta Lynch, says Clinton told her. It wasn’t until 1994, as the New York Times prepared to publish an article detailing the trades, that the Clintons made public the returns.

2) 1993: The Health Care Task Force

As First Lady, Clinton led a presidential task force to overhaul the US health care system. The group, which produced a 1,342-page bill that failed to win approval, came under intense criticism from lawmakers and interest groups for meeting behind closed doors. Several court challenges were brought in an attempt to open the process. Ultimately the courts provided a partial legal victory to the administration. Clinton later wrote she didn’t mind the criticism since she was “trying to do something important for people,” but acknowledged the failure was partially the result of her own “missteps” in “trying to do too much, too fast.”

3) 1994: Records from the Rose Law Firm

US investigators in 1994 subpoenaed the First Lady’s billing records from her years at the Rose Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, documents that had also been sought by reporters. A focus of their interest was her legal work for a failing savings and loan, but records of those billings weren’t found. Much later, Clinton’s longtime assistant, Carolyn Huber, said she found in the White House residence an additional box of records that contained the billing memos. They were turned over to the independent counsel in 1996. Clinton testified she had no knowledge of how the records wound up where they did.

Donors are identified but not the exact amount of each donation or the date of those contributions.

4) 2006: The Energy Task Force

Late in her first term as US senator from New York, Clinton set up an energy task force to help her work through the issue, deliver a major speech on the subject and prepare for a possible presidential run, participants in the task force told us for the book. They produced a forty-page report in April 2006. The whole project, including the existence of the group, its members, and its work product, was a secret, designed, participants said, to encourage frank discussions of the issue. The leader of the task force headed an investment firm with major holdings in the energy sector. Senators routinely get input from outsiders and no law requires their disclosure, but a secret task force is unusual.

5) 2015: The Family Foundation

The Clinton family foundation, now called the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, made disclosures that exceed the legal requirements. Charities are not required to list donors, but as part of Clinton’s selection as secretary of state the foundation agreed to disclose the identity of contributors and restrict solicitations from foreign governments. Still, the information on the foundation’s website is less than full. Donors are identified but not the exact amount of each donation or the date of those contributions. Instead donations fall under ranges and are listed cumulatively. The foundation did not announce that it started raising money from foreign governments after Hillary Clinton left office. But last month the Wall Street Journal pieced together some new foreign donations after the foundation’s web site was updated. That article was the first in a spate of news accounts raising questions about foreign money coming into the Clinton network as she prepares a run for president. The foundation has said donors are carefully vetted and their money goes to important charitable projects.

Jeff Gerth is a senior reporter at ProPublica. Previously, Gerth worked as an investigative reporter at The New York Times. He has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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