Center for American Progress Donors Buy Clinton Access, Experts Say

Supporters of a Clinton presidential run pour money into think tank devising Hillary’s likely platform

Hillary and Chelsea Clinton / AP
January 22, 2015

Supporters of an independent pro-Hillary Clinton Super PAC are pouring money into the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank expected to be the ideological nerve center of a Clinton presidential campaign and, possibly, White House.

High-dollar Democratic donors that have publicly backed Clinton’s long-expected presidential bid and donated funds to the effort featured prominently on donor lists released by CAP on Wednesday.

Even before Hillary Clinton declares a presidential run, experts say, donations to CAP can serve as a means to influence its eventual policy platform and to gain access to Clinton’s secretive and powerful inner circle.

Among the most generous CAP donors of 2014 was the Hutchins Family Foundation. Glenn Hutchins, the group’s founder, is a major Clinton supporter.  "I’m a big fan," he said in 2008, while adding "I’ve had almost no impact on her economic policies."

That changed last year. Hutchins’ foundation contributed more than $1 million to CAP, and he was tapped by the think tank to help devise a series of economic policy recommendations that has been seen since its release last week as a potential blueprint for Clinton’s economic policy.

Steven Rattner, a financier and long-time Clinton donor, is another member of the commission that drafted that report. Rattner contributed between $50,000 and $100,000 to CAP last year.

Hutchins’ and Rattner’s connections to CAP allowed them to influence what could become an influential policy platform in a Clinton campaign or a Clinton presidency.

Whether to influence policy as they have, gain access to individuals in Clinton’s orbit, or simply to support her candidacy by backing the ostensibly nonpartisan group providing its policy foundation, many Clinton supporters are donating large sums to CAP.

The group’s Clinton ties run deep. John Podesta, the founder and former chairman of CAP, recently left his new perch at the White House, where he advised President Obama on climate and energy issues, presumably to run Clinton’s campaign. CAP’s current president, Neera Tanden, is a longtime ally and adviser of both the former president and Mrs. Clinton.

"John Podesta and his allies are the complete package for special interests seeking influence and favoritism from the current administration and the Hillary Clinton operation," said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog group.

Boehm said Podesta’s network has multiple avenues for influence-buying, including CAP, its 501(c)(4) "Action Fund" arm, and the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm founded by John and his brother Tony Podesta, also a CAP donor in 2014.

CAP’s donors in 2013 included 12 Podesta Group clients, leading some to speculate that donations to Podesta’s think tank could allow those clients to ingratiate themselves further with the Washington power brokers that his lobbying firm courts in a more official capacity.

"There are innumerable ways that money can be used to help shape policy and one of those is supporting a nonprofit connected to the politician or political operative," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

"Gifts from moneyed interests to politicians’ pet charities always merit added scrutiny and concern, but the same concerns apply to political operatives and advisers," Krumholz said. "They wield influence, too."

For Clinton supporters and those looking to get close to the likely presidential candidate, Boehm said, Podesta’s "presumed leadership position with the Clinton campaign" makes donations to CAP particularly appealing.

At least 14 people who contributed to or worked in an official capacity with Ready for Hillary, the Super PAC backing Clinton’s likely presidential bid, also donated to CAP in 2014.

Among them were Harold Ickes, who served as Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff; Elizabeth Bagley, who was U.S. ambassador to Portugal under Clinton; George Soros, the liberal billionaire whose Open Society Foundation also contributed to CAP; Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm; and numerous individuals associated with the Democracy Alliance, a shadowy liberal donor club that steers millions to CAP each year.

Other CAP donors include Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Treasury from 1995 to 1999 and a likely aide to a future Hillary Clinton campaign, and the group Not On Our Watch, whose co-founder Jerry Weintraub is directing a film about the attack that killed four Americans at a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, while Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state.

The Dewey Square Group, a Democratic consultancy whose executives have been running a Clinton shadow campaign since the summer of 2013, also donated to CAP last year.

CAP told National Journal on Thursday that it only released the names of donors who consented to the disclosure, making it impossible to know the full extent of the group’s major contributors.

However, it did list donors—both individuals and foundations—in addition to corporate supporters, a change from last year, when CAP received poor marks from Transperify, a group that assesses the transparency of think tanks.

Corporations and individuals listed as contributors in 2014 also include high-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation. The Ford Foundation gave CAP at least $1 million last year. It also donated between $500,000 and $1 million to Clinton’s foundation. Its president, Darren Walker, spoke on a panel with Bill Clinton in June 2014 at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Three months later, he spoke on another CGI panel moderated by Chelsea Clinton.

Others who have donated to both the Clinton Foundation and CAP include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, Microsoft, Visa, Bank of America, and the American Federation of Teachers.