Among the torrent of emails bedeviling Hillary Clinton’s White House bid, a dozen give a behind-the-scenes view of Coca-Cola’s efforts to influence a presidential candidate.
Emails leaked last month by DC Leaks, a “hacktivist” website, show that Coke executives and consultants sprang into action earlier this year to try to talk Clinton into backing down from supporting a tax on sugary sodas.
They later claimed credit internally for at least getting Clinton to stop talking about it, the emails show, although the company says the candidate’s position didn’t change.
Meanwhile, another document released by WikiLeaks last month shows that two people close to the Clintons won over Coke CEO Muhtar Kent and the late Don Keough, a former chairman of the Atlanta beverage giant’s board of directors.
The company donated at least $4.3 million to the Clinton Foundation between 2004 and 2010, according to the memo. Coca-Cola’s giving has since grown to between $5 million and $10 million, according to the Clinton family charity.
The Clinton Foundation has spent millions fighting social ills in the U.S. and around the globe. But for years, news reports and rival politicians have criticized the organization as an apparent funnel for millions in donations from corporations and foreign governments seeking to buy influence.
WikiLeaks was also the source of another hacked email from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that mentioned Coca-Cola’s Kent and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed as potential vice presidential candidates.
Coca-Cola neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of the emails. But company spokesman Kent Landers said Coca-Cola donates money to the Clinton Foundation and its related organization, the Clinton Global Initiative, because the company wants to support its charitable work.
Landers said the company did express its opposition to the soda tax, but added, “The campaign did not change its position.”
Wednesday, Clinton campaign officials confirmed that Clinton said she was “very supportive” of a proposed soda tax in Philadelphia during an April 20 visit to the city, citing its use to help fund education.
The campaign declined further comment on the matter, or on any of the emails leaked by DC Leaks.
The episode “sounds like typical Clinton,” said Seth Weathers, a surrogate for Republican presidential contender Donald Trump’s campaign. “What else will she back off of if it involves somebody who’s giving her money?”
An open window
None of the documents suggest anything illegal or necessarily improper with Coke’s emails or donations to the Clinton camp. But the documents open a window on the back-and-forth exchange of people, money and influence that bind big corporations and top political leaders.
The emails show how the corporate-government merry-go-round works: Coke hired former Clinton functionaries — from the staffs of both Bill and Hillary Clinton — as consultants and relied on their access when needed. One of the former Coke consultants, Sara Latham, is now chief of staff for Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
The tone of the Coca-Cola team’s comments indicate they expected something for whatever support the company had provided.
“Really??? After all we have done. I hope this has been falsely reported,” Clyde Tuggle, head of Coke’s government and public relations departments, groused late on April 20. He had just heard about Clinton’s comments that day on the Philadelphia soda tax.
“Pls give me some talking points for (Coke CEO) Muhtar in the am,” he emailed two Clinton associates who were then on Coke’s payroll as independent consultants. One was Latham. The other was Capricia Marshall, formerly chief of protocol at the State Department when Clinton was secretary of state.
But by the end of the next day, the flurry of emails had died down after Coke’s consultants apparently received assurances that the soda tax wasn’t high on Clinton’s agenda.
“We’ve confirmed that there is no continued conversation (by the Clinton campaign) around beverage taxes today and in future engagements,” Coke government affairs vice president Katherine Rumbaugh told Tuggle in an email update. “Campaign is not going to drive conversation here or weigh in further.”
Next steps are “how to walk this (issue) back,” she added.
In another email to her boss, Rumbaugh said her team “worked together with campaign (communications) team to keep story to one day … (and) to keep GOP from picking up the ball and carrying forward, potentially generating more media.”
These emails may have been a case of a PR executive trying to show results to her boss. Clinton’s comment may have been an off-the-cuff stance on an issue that isn’t a stump staple for either candidate and simply hasn’t come up again.
In any case, the following evening Tuggle noted in an email to Latham and Marshall that then-presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders had criticized Clinton’s support for the soda tax, calling it a regressive tax on the poor.
“Bernie couldn’t have said it better,” Tuggle wrote in the email.
Neither Marshall nor Latham now works for Coca-Cola, according to the company. Marshall was a consultant for Coke from late 2014 to mid-2016; Latham consulted with Coke from 2012 to 2015 and has since returned to Clinton’s campaign organization.
No particular result
Coke spokesman Landers said the company simply expressed its view, without any particular result.
“We were disappointed to learn that Secretary Clinton supported the beverage tax in Philadelphia,” he said. “Following her comments, we shared our point of view on this issue with the campaign but the campaign did not change its position on the Philadelphia beverage tax.”
Landers said Coca-Cola is “nonpartisan” and doesn’t endorse presidential candidates or donate to their campaigns.
But the company has been a heavy spender in other ways that would get a politician’s attention. It spent roughly $600,000 to sponsor the Republican National Convention in 2012, and has donated millions to the Clinton Foundation.
An email by one of Bill Clinton’s closest aides, Doug Band, described how a consulting firm he co-founded helped in spurring Coke’s string of donations.
Band’s partner in the firm, Declan Kelly, “advised the CEO of Coca-Cola for years,” Band wrote in a 2011 memo released by WikiLeaks last month. He described his partner as one of Hillary Clinton’s’ top campaign fundraisers in her 2008 race for president.
“Mr. Kelly introduced the CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent, to (former president Bill) Clinton in January 2009 at a meeting he arranged at President Clinton’s home in DC,” Band said. “Mr. Kelly asked Mr. Kent to give $5 million to the Foundation, which he pledged in early 2010.”
Coke’s dealings with Donald Trump, the Republican’s presidential nominee, have been tepid in comparison.
According to the New York Times, Coke was among a number of formerly big corporate sponsors that cut back on donations to sponsor the Republican National Convention this year. A group called Color of Change had petitioned companies to not support Trump’s “hateful and racist rhetoric” if he became the Republican nominee.
Landers said Coke had decided to cut support at this year’s political conventions for unrelated reasons, and donated $75,000 to each party’s 2016 political convention.