In 2012, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain turned over nearly $9 million in unspent funds from his 2008 presidential campaign to the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a tax-exempt non-profit foundation associated with Arizona State University.
However, according to sources, critics from both sides of the aisle believe the institute constitutes a major conflict of interest for McCain.
“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.
In addition, the institute has taken at least $100,000 from a Moroccan state-run company tied to repeated charges of worker abuse and exploitation. The McCain group has also accepted at least $100,000 from the Pivotal Foundation, which was created by Francis Najafi who owns the Pivotal Group, a private equity and real estate firm.
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.”
“This is a very real conflict of interest,” Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, told DCNF. “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.”
Lawrence Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said 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, said 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, reeks of impropriety and at worse are public corruption.”
McCain, however, claims no involvement with the institute, saying “I’m proud that the institute is named after me, but I have nothing to do with it.”
The institute did not respond to DNCF requests for the dollar amounts of its high donors, when the donations were made, and if there were strings attached to the contributions, but referred it to Arizona State University instead.
You can see more from the DNCF report here.