Clinton Aide Worked on UAE Project While at State Department

Experts suggest activity could violate conflict of interest provisions

Cheryl Mills / AP
June 24, 2015

Hillary Clinton’s top aide Cheryl Mills held several outside roles, including a board position with a UAE-funded university in Abu Dhabi, while working as chief of staff and counselor at the State Department, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

After joining the State Department in the beginning of 2009, Mills continued to serve as general counsel for New York University for several months. She also sat on the board of the "NYU in Abu Dhabi Corporation," the fundraising arm for the university’s UAE satellite campus. The school is bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi government and has been criticized by NYU professors and human rights activists for alleged labor abuses.

Mills resigned both positions in May 2009, according to a university spokesperson. Although she did not receive a direct salary from the Abu Dhabi board, she collected $198,000 over four months from NYU.

While the State Department told the Free Beacon that Mills did not start working as Clinton’s chief of staff until May 24, 2009, internal agency documents indicate she began months earlier.

Mills is identified as Clinton’s chief of staff in several U.S. diplomatic cables prior to May 2009. One confidential dispatch published by Wikileaks described a Feb. 5, 2009 meeting in Washington between Haitian President Rene Preval and Secretary Clinton.

"On the U.S. side, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson … Special Advisor Vicki Huddleston, and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills joined the Secretary," said the cable, which was sent from Hillary Clinton’s office to the U.S. embassy in Port au Prince on Feb. 11, 2009.

Mills is also copied on over a dozen internal State Department memos vetting Bill Clinton’s paid speaking engagements between February and May 2009. The documents were released last year under a Freedom of Information Act request from Judicial Watch.

In the memos, drafted by the State Department’s deputy legal advisor, James Thessin, Mills is identified as "Counselor and Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of State."

On February 17, 2009, Thessin sent a memo to Bill Clinton’s scheduler, recommending "To expedite these [conflict of interest assessment] requests in the future, you may wish to forward the request directly to me, with a copy to Waldo (Chip) Brooks, my Senior Ethics counsel … his deputy, Violanda Botet … and Cheryl Mills."

As the Free Beacon previously reported, Mills was still on the board of the William J. Clinton Foundation during this time.

A Clinton Foundation official told the Free Beacon that Mills resigned from its board in March 2009, but did not provide the specific date. The official also said the position was unpaid and "there was no board activity [involving Mills] after December 2008."

While Mills is also listed in some Clinton Foundation records as a director until as late as 2012, the foundation and its filing vendor told the Free Beacon this was due to an inadvertent filing error.

Mills’ outside roles could have opened her up to potential criminal conflict of interest violations, according to ethics experts.

"A key element of those laws is whether the executive branch employee is making decisions or playing an important role in a particular matter which involves their other interest," said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a government watchdog group. "At the minimum the whole thing is fraught with danger."

Mills would have been exempt from some ethics restrictions if she was granted "special government employee" status at the time, which would allow her to work in a part-time consulting role at the agency.

Last year, the State Department released a list of all of its SGE employees under Hillary Clinton in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica. According to the list, Mills was classified as an SGE in 2013 but she is not listed in 2009.

The State Department told the Free Beacon on Friday that it is currently trying to determine whether Mills was a special government employee in 2009. It was not able to produce a response by publication time. Mills did not respond to request for comment.

Another Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, was classified as an SGE during her last few months at the State Department. During this time, Abedin also worked as a consultant at the Clinton Foundation and Teneo, a company founded by long-time Clinton associate Doug Band.

Ethics experts said even if Mills did have special government employee status, she could not be involved in government matters that would help NYU or the Clinton Foundation financially.

"The only rule that applies to both [SGE’s and regular government employees] is that she cannot participate in matters that would financially benefit a current employer, for example NYU," said Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics counselor under President George W. Bush. "Same for anyone else or any foundation she worked for while working at State."

The Clintons maintained close relationships with NYU and the UAE during and after Hillary Clinton’s time at the State Department.

The secretary of state gave the NYU commencement address on May 13, 2009.

Bill Clinton was paid $175,000 in November 2009 for a speech in Abu Dhabi, according to Peter Schweitzer’s book Clinton Cash. He also reportedly received $600,000 for a UAE government event in 2011. Since then, the former president has given additional paid speeches in the UAE, including a controversial 2013 address at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus.

The Clinton Foundation has also received between $1 million and $5 million from the UAE government.

"Federal of conflict interest statutes are very strict, and they want to ensure that federal employees, especially very senior special employees like Cheryl Mills, do not have any conflicts of interest in any matter that they have a hand in," said Boehm. "Given her position, the dual position of counselor and chief of staff, presumably she would have access to almost any decision of importance that came out of the State Department."

Mills currently runs the BlackIvy Group, a consulting firm that focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013 she rejoined the board of the Clinton Foundation.