Huma Abedin's overlapping jobs renew focus on Clinton conflicts

Huma Abedin stepped down from her post as deputy chief of staff at the State Department and Hillary Clinton's ever-present personal assistant on June 3, 2012. Only she didn't really leave.

Instead, in a reverse twist on a program intended to bring talented outsiders into government, Abedin was immediately rehired as a "special government employee." She also took paying jobs with the Clinton Foundation and Teneo Holdings, a consulting firm with international clients that was co-founded by a foundation official who also was Bill Clinton's long-time personal aide.

Abedin's multitasking in the final eight months of Hillary Clinton's time as the top U.S. diplomat — and her role as intermediary for some of the same players before that — are drawing renewed scrutiny after a conservative watchdog group's release last week of a new batch of e-mails to and from Clinton aides. Abedin has become the personification of an election-year debate over whether the nonprofit foundation will create conflicts of interest if Clinton wins the White House.

"The Clinton Foundation for Hillary Clinton is kind of a walking conflict-of-interest problem," Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said in an interview. "Clearly this notion that it could continue to operate while she was secretary of state -- it was a built-in problem. If you're really looking at what should happen if she's elected, neither her husband nor her daughter, certainly no relative, should have any connection with the foundation."

Clinton was rated trustworthy by just 41 percent of likely voters in a Bloomberg Politics national poll conducted Aug. 5-8. More than half said that the Clinton Foundation's acceptance of foreign contributions while she was secretary of state bothers them "a lot."

The Clinton Foundation is a nonprofit which says on its website that it has focused "on tackling a number of the world's greatest challenges: Global health, climate change, economic development, health and wellness, and improving opportunity for girls and women." Its annual financial statement for 2014 said its grants and contributions for the year totaled $331.7 million.

Bill and Hillary Clinton have never been paid for their work with the foundation, and Bill Clinton told Bloomberg Television in June that "I always took all the money people gave us and put it right into the work."

But Republican critics say they have benefited from political contributions and speech fees provided by some of its wealthy contributors. Republicans have cited the questionable human-rights records of some countries that contributed to the foundation, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump last week called it a "pay-for-play" operation that rewarded its benefactors with State Department favors.

When Clinton was awaiting confirmation as President Barack Obama's secretary of state in 2009, she wrote a letter to the State Department's chief ethics officer promising that she wouldn't "participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that has a direct and predictable effect upon this foundation, unless I first obtain a written waiver or qualify for a regulatory exemption."

But that "did not preclude other State Department officials from having contact with the Clinton Foundation staff," just as they "are regularly in touch with a wide variety of outside individuals and organizations," department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters last week.

That's where Abedin came in.

Best known for her "Good Wife" ordeal standing by her husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, throughout the sexting scandal that brought down his career in politics, Abedin's professional accomplishments have been mostly behind the scenes as the ever-present assistant to Hillary Clinton.

The Michigan-born daughter of an Indian father and a Pakistani mother, Abedin graduated from George Washington University and worked as a White House intern for Hillary Clinton as first lady. She followed her boss to the Senate, on her 2008 presidential campaign and to the State Department. Abedin is still at Clinton's side as vice chair of this year's presidential campaign.

Abedin's arrangement as a "special government employee" has been challenged since 2013 by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has questioned whether she was overpaid and wrote her that "you allegedly sent or received approximately 7,300 emails on your official Department of State address that involved Mr. Douglas Band," the Bill Clinton aide and Clinton Foundation official who co-founded Teneo.

In a 2013 letter to State Department officials, Abedin said she left her full-time post because "the birth of my son in December 2011 led me to decide to spend the bulk of my time in New York City where my family lived." She said she stayed on as an hourly employee working for "the Secretary of State in her personal capacity to help prepare for her transition from public service."

Abedin wrote that she provided "strategic advice" to Teneo's management team but never did "any work on Teneo's behalf before the department" nor provided information from government sources to help its clients make investment decisions, as Republicans had suggested.

Abedin's arrangement was questioned in a 2013 civil lawsuit by Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group, which pressed for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. After Clinton's use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state became public, the group got the the case reopened and has been obtaining — and publicizing — a steady barrage of e-mails and deposition transcripts on the e-mail system and other topics.

Last week, Judicial Watch produced e-mails including a 2009 exchange in which Band wrote Abedin that it was "important to take care of" an individual, whose name was redacted. Abedin replied that "personnel has been sending him options."

In another 2009 exchange, Band asked Abedin and Cheryl Mills, Clinton's chief of staff, to put Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury in touch with a State Department "substance person" on Lebanon. The Chagoury Group co-founder has given between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation, according to a list of donors posted online.

"Neither of these emails involve the Secretary or relate to the Foundation's work," Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Clinton's campaign, said in a statement. Referring to Band's work for Bill Clinton, he said, "They are communications between her aides and the President's personal aide, and indeed the recommendation was for one of the Secretary's former staffers who was not employed by the Foundation."

Trudeau, the State Department spokeswoman, said the department was "not aware of any actions that were influenced by the Clinton Foundation." A lawyer for Abedin declined to comment.

The thousands of work-related e-mails from Clinton's private server that have been released by the State Department also underscore that some of the almost-constant contacts between Abedin and Douglas Band during her years at the State Department simply reflected their roles as the all-purpose helpers alongside Hillary and Bill Clinton in their separate global travels.

"If u r still up, wjc landed in brazil for refuel," Abedin wrote the secretary of state in June 2009, using Bill Clinton's initials. "He should be on the ground for an hour or so. Call dougs cell."

Washington is in many ways a small town with government as its industry, and the debate over the Clinton Foundation simply shows "the way Washington works," said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.

"It's instances like this that cause the public to have a negative view of how our government works, and it really gives people the impression that deals are done in back rooms and based on who you know rather than what you know," Amey said in an interview.

While Abedin hasn't said whether she'd return to Washington and the White House to serve again in a Clinton administration, the Clintons have acknowledged that they would have to forge a new relationship with the foundation they started. But they haven't provided details.

"There'll clearly be some changes in what the Clinton Foundation does and how we do it," Bill Clinton told Bloomberg Television anchor David Westin during a June session of the foundation's Clinton Global Initiative in Atlanta. "And we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it."