"Clinton aide says Foundation paid for Chelsea's wedding."
— Fox News headline, Nov. 6
The 2016 presidential election is over, but two readers separately sent a query about a news report that apparently swayed some voters at the last minute.
— "I was a Hillary Clinton supporter, but since the election have heard from several people who voted for Donald Trump that the final straw for them were the news reports that Hillary Clinton was taking money directly for her personal use out of the Clinton Foundation and that the foundation paid for Chelsea Clinton's wedding."
— "I recently visited friends in Upstate New York. ... Our Upstate hosts and all but one of the Upstate guests relayed 'facts' they had read about in the media that supported their decision not to vote for Hillary Clinton and to vote instead for Donald Trump. ... They asserted that their support for Trump was buttressed by media reports they had read that the Clinton Foundation had paid for all or part of Chelsea Clinton's wedding. What can you tell me and your readers about assertions that the Clinton Foundation paid for all or part of Chelsea Clinton's wedding?"
Given the interest — and the possibility that votes were affected — this seemed like a worthy avenue for inquiry.
This allegation first emerged in a tweet by WikiLeaks, which highlighted a 2012 email from a former Bill Clinton aide to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
"Chelsea Clinton used Clinton Foundation resources for her wedding," WikiLeaks tweeted the Sunday morning before Election Day.
Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Podesta. WikiLeaks had been doling out leaks for weeks but presumably held on to this one for maximum impact just before Election Day.
The only U.S. newspaper that reported the story was the New York Post, which ran this print-edition headline: "Bridal $weet for Chelsea; Foundation cash for nuts." The first paragraph also stressed the cash angle: "Chelsea Clinton used her family foundation's cash to pay for her wedding, living expenses and taxes on gifts of cash from her parents, according to a bombshell email made public Sunday."
The story also was picked up by British tabloids, Fox News, Russian news agencies and various right-leaning websites. Fox headlined its story: "Clinton aide says Foundation paid for Chelsea's wedding."
But otherwise the story did not get mentioned on other networks or newspapers, except for reference to it by conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt on MSNBC.
Despite the breathless reporting, it's hard to tell exactly what is going on in the email exchange, which is dated Jan. 4, 2012. There is no mention of actual Foundation funds being used for the wedding.
Doug Band, the former Bill Clinton aide, first complains to Podesta that he had heard that Chelsea Clinton had told one of George W. Bush's daughters that she was conducting an investigation of Clinton Foundation finances. "Not smart," Band says.
Podesta replies, "You are perfecting your skills for understatement."
"I learned from the best," answers Band. Then he adds, ominously: "The investigation into her getting paid for campaigning, using foundation resources for her wedding and life for a decade, taxes on money from her parents. ... I hope you will speak to her and end this. Once we go down this road. ..."
So, without being specific, Band appears to be alleging Chelsea Clinton engaged in some inappropriate use of Clinton Foundation "resources" - whatever that is - for her 2010 wedding to Marc Mezvinsky. Clearly, there's bad blood between Chelsea Clinton and Band, who in 2011 started his own company, Teneo Holdings. Clinton had taken a stronger role in the foundation and expressed concerns over Teneo's operations. In another email disclosed by WikiLeaks, Band called her a "spoiled brat kid."
Band declined to comment on the wedding email, and Podesta did not respond to a request for comment.
The Clinton Foundation is a public charity and, thus, is covered by Internal Revenue Service rules prohibiting inurement, an arcane word meaning "benefit." One possible use of "resources" would be foundation employees volunteering at the wedding.
"Assuming that Clinton Foundation employees happened to volunteer at the wedding, and were not doing it on their time paid as a Clinton Foundation employee, there is no way it violates the inurement rule," said Philip Hackney, associate law professor at LSU Law Center. "If on the other hand, of course, these employees were paid for that time by the Clinton Foundation, that would likely violate the provision."
But no evidence has emerged that even volunteers were used, and the Clinton Foundation denied any resources at all were diverted to Chelsea Clinton's wedding. "No Foundation funds or resources were used for the wedding," said Brian Cookstra, a foundation spokesman, even after we ran various scenarios past him, including use of personal staff and even volunteers.
"As was reported widely at the time, the Clintons hired a wedding planner," Cookstra said. "The planning, management, and execution of the event was handled by him, which included managing vendors, venue, etc."
Bryan Rafanelli, the wedding planner, said that when he read a news article alleging the foundation paid for Chelsea Clinton's wedding, he thought, "Oh, come on, that's crazy."
Rafanelli said that he dealt with five people on the wedding: Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Mezvinsky and Dorothy Rodham, Chelsea's grandmother. He said he arranged for the vendors, after providing options, and then planned it out "like a military operation." He even booked the hotel rooms for guests. The only thing he did not provide was the guest list and the seating order of the guests.
"It's one-stop shopping," he said. "You pay Rafanelli. We pay everyone else."
He noted that he had a staff of 25 people working on the wedding and that the location — a Hudson River estate — was a secret to guests until four days before the wedding.
The cost of the wedding has never been revealed, but Rafanelli says figures in the media are exaggerated.
"The Clintons happily and proudly paid for the wedding," said Angel Urena, a spokesman for the former president.
It's important to remember that Band's email was sent privately, with little expectation it would be aired publicly. On the one hand, that might indicate he would be more open about possible conflicts. But he was also feuding with Chelsea Clinton and so might have been inclined to exaggerate or embellish his concerns.
Even the email, at face value, does not justify the hyperbolic news coverage. There was no reference to foundation funds, just "resources."
At the same time, the foundation, the family and the wedding planner deny the claim made in the email. This was a major social event with 450 guests, something that has to run like clockwork - at great cost. The wedding planner paid the bills and submitted one bill to the Clinton family.
No specific person repeated the allegation that the foundation paid for the wedding. But we can fault the news reporting - and label this as a claim lacking any firm proof. Readers (or their friends) who viewed this as the "last straw" about Clinton corruption need to be more careful consumers of the news.