A good-government watchdog is calling on secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken to disclose any foreign-funding sources for the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Biden Center, where Blinken served as director, as part of his Senate confirmation vetting process.
The National Legal and Policy Center (NPLC) is arguing that any foreign money that made its way into the Penn Biden Center could pose a conflict of interest for Blinken, who served as the center's director from 2017 to 2019 and received a more than $79,000 salary, according to his financial-disclosure records. The watchdog group said the university also saw a significant spike in contributions from China after the Penn Biden Center opened in 2017, raising questions about whether the funding had any connection to the policy center.
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While President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to tighten ethics standards for his incoming administration, the Penn Biden Center's lack of financial candor raises questions about the Biden cabinet's commitment to transparency as Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
"The Penn Biden Center is the poster child for revolving-door conflicts of interest," said Tom Anderson, director of the NPLC's Government Integrity Project. "It's time they disclose their donors and allow the American people the opportunity to evaluate whether any lines have been crossed."
The Penn Biden Center was founded by Joe Biden at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017. Biden's other policy-research institute at the University of Delaware has faced similar criticism over a lack of transparency and has no plans to disclose its donors after the president-elect takes office. Both organizations have served as cabinets-in-waiting, employing former Biden advisers who are now expected to join his administration.
Stephen MacCarthy, a spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Free Beacon that the Penn Biden Center "is funded entirely with University funds" and doesn't engage in fundraising.
"The University has never solicited any gifts for the Center. Since its inception in 2017 there have been three unsolicited gifts (from two donors) which combined total $1,100. Both donors are Americans," said MacCarthy.
MacCarthy declined to discuss additional details of the center's funding, or the sudden spike in donations from China, on the record.
Foreign contributions to the University of Pennsylvania tripled since the Penn Biden Center's soft opening in March 2017, rising from $31 million in 2016 to over $100 million in 2019. The largest foreign contributor was China, which significantly increased its gifts to the university after the Penn Biden Center opened.
The University of Pennsylvania took in around $61 million in gifts and contracts from China between 2017 and 2019, according to records from the Department of Education. This was a substantial uptick from the prior four years, when the university received $19 million from China.
Many of the Chinese contributions were listed as coming from "anonymous" sources, according to the university's disclosure records. Between March 2017 and the end of 2019, the university received a total of $22 million in anonymous gifts from China—a spike from less than $5 million during the preceding four years.
Blinken's work outside of the Penn Biden Center also involved China and university funding.
Blinken cofounded the consulting firm WestExec, which helped U.S. universities raise money from China without running afoul of Pentagon grant requirements, the Free Beacon reported last month. WestExec scrubbed the details of this work from its website over the summer.
Anderson said his group is preparing to file a supplement to a Department of Justice complaint filed against the University of Pennsylvania last year.
The NLPC’s complaint asked the DOJ to look into whether the University of Pennsylvania or the Penn Biden Center violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act by accepting foreign funding in exchange for promoting the interests of foreign governments. Anderson said the new complaint will include Blinken's work assisting universities that receive funding from China.
Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that the committee will likely vote on Blinken's confirmation on Monday.