Hillary Clinton’s top aide at the State Department who simultaneously worked for New York University helped arrange Clinton’s high-profile speech at the school in 2009, according to internal State Department emails released last week.
Clinton aide Cheryl Mills was working as both State Department chief of staff and as NYU general counsel from January to May 2009, the Washington Free Beacon first reported last month. Mills helped the school bring Clinton as its May 13, 2009, commencement speaker and was involved in her speech-drafting process, emails indicate.
The university announced in March 2009 that Clinton would speak at the event. Securing the secretary of state was a significant coup for NYU, and led to a record audience and increased publicity.
NYU officials thanked Mills in emails that she passed along to Clinton. They were included in a large collection of emails released by the State Department last week.
In one May 14, 2009, email, NYU public affairs vice president Lynne Brown described the event, which was held at Yankee Stadium, as a record-breaking success.
"Cheryl: Thanks for all your help and guidance on getting HRC to our Commencement," Brown wrote. "Clearly she was a hit! Her presence and her message added luster to the event."
Brown added that the university event director "reported record attendance for NYU Commencement and largest seated graduation in NYU history: over 27,000."
Greg Albanis, the senior director of university events, also thanked Mills in an email.
"Awesome," he wrote on May 13, 2009. "The largest ceremony in NYU historyl [sic] Thank You!!!!!!"
Mills passed the messages onto Clinton with "fyi."
Jim Kennedy, a former Clinton communications aide, also emailed Mills notes for the speech draft on May 11, 2009, copying three other State Department employees.
"Thanks for the opportunity to suggest a line or two," said Kennedy.
He recommended adding in a few Yankee jokes for Clinton, such as "I kind of feel at home here in Yankee Stadium, because ever since January, I've been playing on a team with a bunch of guys wearing pinstripes."
Kennedy also suggested a couple of "self-deprecating" jokes about Clinton losing to President Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
"[M]aybe go from there into a little riff like ‘Don't sell yourselves short. Many of you showed your capacity to bring change by helping bring Barack Obama to the presidency.’ (And then, after the inevitable applause at that line, follow with this quip, with a smile: ‘Where were you when I needed you?’)."
In addition, he proposed that she change the line "half of my senior staff used to work here" because, he said, "the word ‘here’ given that it's in Yankee Stadium might confuse a little – better perhaps to say ‘used to work at NYU.’"
Mills passed the speech suggestions on to Clinton with the note "Fyi in case you wanted to see raw input."
According to her financial disclosures, Mills earned $198,000 from NYU between January and May 2009.
The State Department declined to comment on the matter specifically, but said it would be responding to a Monday letter from Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley requesting more information on whether Mills’ outside positions presented a conflict of interest.
"We have received a letter from Senator Grassley inquiring about Ms. Mills. We are reviewing the letter now, and we will be responding to Senator Grassley. I’m not going to get ahead of that," said a State Department spokesperson.
Mills responded through the public relations group Mercury, which directed the Free Beacon to a section of the Department of Justice ethics guidelines. The section said government employees are permitted to give official speeches for former employers as long as the speeches had no "demonstrable financial effect on the former employer or client."
Although this scenario is different than the one involving Mills, Mercury's Erin Pelton said it was still relevant in this case.
"A conflict arises when either party has a financial interest," said Pelton. "There was no financial interest, so there could not even be a conflict (which the [regulations] reference shows), whether for a current or former employee."
Government watchdogs said Mills’ involvement with the NYU speech appeared to be a clear conflict of interest.
"The NY University emails to Cheryl Mills show a textbook example of a conflict of interest. The fact that a wealthy institution was paying Secretary Clinton's chief of staff while seeking—and getting—access and special favors speaks for itself," said Ken Boehm, chairman of the public ethics group The National Legal and Policy Center.
The federal criminal conflict of interest statute prohibits government employees from "participating personally and substantially" in a matter which a current outside employer has a financial interest.
The State Department told the Free Beacon last month that Mills was a "special government employee," or "SGE," for her first four months at the agency while working for NYU. The State Department had previously omitted Mills from lists of SGEs for the year 2009 that it turned over to the Senate Judiciary Committee and in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica.
Grassley pressed the State Department to release information on Mills’ employment status and potential outside conflicts in a letter to Secretary John Kerry on Monday.
Special government employees are exempt from certain ethics rules but are still bound by the conflict of interest statute.