Douglas J. Band, a longtime aide to Bill Clinton after he left the White House, sent an email to two of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s top aides with a “Very imp” message: The State Department needed to make one of its senior officials available for a conversation with a billionaire businessman — who also was a major donor to the Clinton Foundation.
The billionaire and donor, Gilbert Chagoury, wanted to speak to the State Department’s top official on Lebanon, Band wrote in the April 2009 email to the two aides, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills. Chagoury is a Nigerian-based hotel and real estate developer whose family is from Lebanon.
“As you know, he’s key guy there and to us and is loved in Lebanon,” Band wrote.
Abedin emailed back that the person Chagoury should speak with was Jeffrey Feltman, who had recently left his post as the United States ambassador to Lebanon. “I’m sure he knows him,’’ Abedin said in her email to Band. “I’ll talk to Jeff.’’
The exchange of emails emerged this week as a result of a lawsuit over emails sent on the Clinton family’s private server. They were immediately cited by conservative activists as more proof that Clinton, while secretary of state, ignored an agreement to keep Clinton Foundation matters separate from her State Department duties.
“This is a violation of that agreement, on its face,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, the conservative group that sued to get the emails.
But Mark Corallo, a Washington-based spokesman for Chagoury, said in a statement Wednesday that Chagoury had been seeking to contact someone in the State Department to offer his insight into the coming elections that June in 2009 in Lebanon, where he has deep ties and experience. He had not been seeking official action by the State Department.
“He was simply passing along his observations and insights about the dire political situation in Lebanon at the time,” Corallo said.
Corallo said no conversations ever took place.
Chagoury, he said, “has had no personal contact with Secretary Clinton or any of her staff since 2006. He has never met or had any contact with Ambassador Feltman. He had no contact of any kind with anyone from the State Department regarding the subject matter of the emails between Band and Abedin.”
Feltman, in an email exchange with The New York Times on Wednesday, confirmed that he never met with Chagoury or spoke to him.
Abedin, now serving as vice chairwoman of the Clinton campaign, did not respond to a request for comment made through a campaign spokesman.
Band, who declined on Wednesday to comment, had the credentials to get the State Department’s attention.
After serving on Clinton’s White House staff, Band became his chief adviser after he left office, helping him create the Clinton Global Initiative, a part of the Clinton Foundation and its global charitable efforts, which has gathered billions of dollars in donations and commitments from a sprawling collection of affluent donors and foundations.
Chagoury was someone Band had reason to want to help out. A longtime donor, Chagoury contributed from $1 million to $5 million to the Clinton Foundation, and in 1996, donated $460,000 to a voter registration effort benefiting Democrats.
Chagoury, according to Corallo, said that his contributions to the Clinton Foundation were based on the “good philanthropic work around the world — especially in Africa.”
A follow-up email Band sent to the State Department in May 2009 suggests that the conversation he was trying to set up still had not taken place, even given Chagoury’s clout. “You connect with Joseph re: Chagoury,” Band, most likely referring to an aide to the businessman, wrote Abedin, who responded: “Left him a message. He hasn’t called yet.”
The controversy over the emails released this week comes in part because of earlier emails that have hinted that Clinton’s staff or the Clinton Foundation had contacted the State Department while Clinton was in charge, even if just to get approval for paid speeches that Clinton was about to give.
A cache of emails that the State Department released to the activist group Citizens United, for example, showed an invitation to Clinton to speak at a United States-China energy summit meeting in 2012 organized by Luca International Group, which was later fined $68 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for defrauding investors.
Another email sought approval for Clinton to accept a $650,000 fee for speaking at a Forbes Emerging Markets conference in Brazzaville, Congo, in 2012. “This did not clear our internal vet, but WJC wants to know what state thinks of it if he took it 100% for the foundation,” Amitabh Desai, the foundation’s director of foreign policy, wrote, referring to the former president by his initials.
Fitton said that even if Chagoury was not seeking a favor from the State Department, the effort by Band to help a donor to the Clinton Foundation get high-level access to the United States government was improper.
“In the fund-raising community, you call this donor maintenance,” Fitton said. “Whether or not they were able to get the final call, the explanation still does not pass a smell test given financial ties between Chagoury and the Clinton Foundation. Politicians who receive contributions from wealthy patrons and then do something on their behalf always say it is a just a matter of helping out a friend.”
Fitton also pointed out that Chagoury was hardly the kind of businessman whom the Clinton family should be trying to assist.
Chagoury was an associate of Sani Abacha, a powerful Nigerian general in the 1990s who was believed to have stolen large amounts of public funds.
In 2000, Chagoury was convicted of money laundering in Switzerland in connection with the Abacha family, court records show. The PBS program “Frontline” reported in 2010 that his record was expunged after he paid a fine.
Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Clinton’s campaign, said Fitton was trying to create a conspiracy where none existed.
“The right-wing organization behind this lawsuit has been attacking the Clintons since the 1990s, and no matter how this group tries to mischaracterize these documents, the fact remains that Hillary Clinton never took action as secretary of state because of donations to the Clinton Foundation,” he said.