Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in 2012 turned over nearly $9 million in unspent funds from his failed 2008 presidential campaign to a new foundation bearing his name, the McCain Institute for International Leadership.
The institute is intended to serve as a “legacy” for McCain and “is dedicated to advancing human rights, dignity, democracy and freedom.” It is a tax-exempt non-profit foundation with assets valued at $8.1 million and associated with Arizona State University.
Conservative and liberal critics, however, believe the institute constitutes a major conflict of interest for McCain, media has learned.
McCain, a former Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and was then a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton until 1973, is a major political force in Washington, D.C. He is presently chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
Critics worry that the institute’s donors and McCain’s personal leadership in the organization’s exclusive “Sedona Forum” bear an uncanny resemblance to the glitzy Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) that annually co-mingled special interests and powerful political players in alleged pay-to-play schemes.
The institute has accepted contributions of as much as $100,000 from billionaire liberal activist-funder George Soros and from Teneo, a for-profit company co-founded by Doug Band, former President Bill Clinton’s “bag man.” Teneo has long helped enrich Clinton through lucrative speaking and business deals.
And Bloomberg reported in 2016 on a $1 million Saudi Arabian donation to the institute, a contribution the McCain group has refused to explain publicly.
The Pivotal Foundation has in the last three years given $205,000 to the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), which has been a vocal advocate for the Iranian nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated.
The NIAC web site claims the group “is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people.”
But NIAC President Trita Parsi has long been an advocate for Iran, including demanding in May 2017 that President Donald Trump and officials in his administration “cease questioning the integrity of a (nuclear) deal.”
The NIAC is “Iran’s lobbyists in Washington,” charged Aresh Salih, the Washington representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.
“People inside of Iran know them as their lobbyists in Washington, D.C.,” Salih told media.
The NIAC does not file as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, nor does it register as a lobbyist with Congress.
Yet in May 2013, Parsi spoke to a packed Capitol Hill meeting sponsored by Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison to argue in favor of the nuclear deal. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is also deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“This is a very real conflict of interest,” Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, told media.
“This is the similar type of pattern we received with the Clinton Foundation in which foreign governments and foreign interests were throwing a lot of money in the hopes of trying to buy influence.”
Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader founded Public Citizen.
Lawrence Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, told the press that accepting contributions in the name of a sitting senator like McCain raises troubling issues.
“In terms of the ethics of it, it does raise a broad question of people trying to get good will with the elected official,” he said.
“From a personal standpoint, I’d rather not see these entities exist.”
Charles Ortel, a retired Wall Street investment banker and philanthropy law expert, commented that
“high government officials such as John McCain, [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama should not get involved with vehicles like these where substantial sums can be funneled over time in ways that at best, wreak of impropriety and at worse are public corruption.”
The institute’s donations not only suggest special pleading before the senator, but also in some instances appear to contradict McCain’s vision of human rights and national security.
It accepted more than $100,000 from OCP, S.A., a Moroccan state-owned phosphate company operating in the Western Sahara, territory which Morocco seized in 1975. The North African country has since occupied the region by force in defiance of U.N. resolutions and legal declarations by other international bodies.
Morocco has come under criticism from human rights groups that the government violates basic human rights and that its state-owned companies subject its workforce to gruesome conditions while exploiting the disputed territory’s natural resources.
The Western Sahara holds half of the world’s phosphate reserves. Used to make fertilizer, phosphate is called Morocco’s “white gold.”
Last week, a South African court ruled in favor of the seizure of an OCP ship charged with illegally carrying 50,000 tons of phosphate from the Western Sahara. The country’s independence movement, which calls the territory the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, succeeded in convincing the court to keep the ship in port until the case is resolved.
The King of Morocco was a major donor to the Clinton Foundation. Hillary Clinton personally accepted $12 million from the King in return for holding a CGI regional meeting in the country.
OCP also was a major sponsor of the CGI meeting, and Bill Clinton was the featured speaker.
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice has charged OCP with “serious human rights violations,” including exploitation of workers by not “adequately compensating the impoverished people who live there.”
McCain has lavished effusive praise on the King of Morocco, saying in 2011, that the country was a “positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa.”
McCain and Soros reportedly became friends after the senator was exposed as a member of the “Keating Five” during the savings and loan (S&L) industry scandal during former President George H.W. Bush’s administration. As the S&L bank chairman, Charles Keating paid $1.3 million to bribe five members of Congress to interfere with government regulators on behalf of the savings bank.
The experience so scarred McCain that he became a vigorous advocate of campaign finance reform and in the process reportedly became friends with Soros.
McCain recently claimed no involvement with the institute, saying “I’m proud that the institute is named after me, but I have nothing to do with it.”