Hit Job: A Closer Look at the WSJ’s Clueless Attack on the Clinton Foundation

Last year, I made the (obvious) prediction that scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation would pick up in 2016 as the election approached. Such scrutiny is well deserved. Some of the allegations about the foundation have been truly unsettling—like those stories linking the Clintons to repressive foreign regimes. Let’s hope smart reporters keep digging around.  

Yet other allegations about the Clinton Foundation have been almost comically clueless in their failure to understand modern philanthropy or how this unique outfit operates.

A new story published in the Wall Street Journal, by James Grimaldi, falls into the latter category. It alleges that the Clinton Foundation improperly aided a for-profit energy business founded by friends of Bill Clinton. The company, Energy Pioneer Solutions, describes its mission as building a “sustainable energy model that provides streamlined, turn-key solutions for both energy providers and American homeowners alike.” Among its ideas is finding new ways to insulate homes that don’t require big upfront outlays for homeowners. The founders of the company have various ties to Bill Clinton, both political and personal.

As part of the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative, a $2 million investment was arranged with Energy Pioneer Solutions by Kim Samuel, a Canadian businessperson and philanthropist. Additionally, Bill Clinton recommended to Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, that the company receive a federal grant from the Energy Department, which it did.

Those are the facts of the case, as breathlessly reported in the Wall Street Journal, complete with a graphic laying out the web of relationships involved.

What’s your reaction to those facts? My own is: Good work, Bill! The former president and Clinton Foundation did a wise thing here—albeit without a keen enough eye toward how a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper might work with this material when Hillary made a White House run.

Finding new ways to finance sustainable energy solutions for homeowners has emerged as one of the most promising frontiers in clean energy in recent years. Most notably, solar panels have spread rapidly across rooftops as private companies have shouldered the cost of installing those panels, at no cost to homeowners. Bill Clinton clearly grasped the potential of this model back in 2010, before many other people did, and also grasped that it was critical to find new ways to finance home insulation and other efficiency steps so that homeowners didn’t have to shell out the money themselves.

While the WSJ’s Grimaldi writes darkly about the Clinton Foundation arranging support for a for-profit business, this is an obvious area where a private investment makes a lot more sense than a charitable grant. Impact investing has huge potential in the sustainable energy space, as we’ve lately seen—which is another thing that Bill Clinton grasped before many others did.

If Grimaldi knew anything about impact investing or the Clinton Foundation’s model, he’d know that this episode with Energy Pioneer Solutions was firmly in line with its mission. The foundation is not a traditional charitable grantmaking entity. It is mainly a matchmaker that connects donors to projects that aim to improve the world. Some of that money takes the form of philanthropic contributions; some takes the form of private investments in for-profit companies that address social or environmental problems.

In this way, the Clinton Foundation is like a growing number of philanthropic entities that blend different models for achieving impact. (The Omidyar Network is among the best known of such hybrids, directly making many investments in for-profit social enterprises, along with grants.)

Grimaldi writes that the “commitment to Energy Pioneer Solutions was atypical [for the Clinton Global Initiative] because it originated from a private individual who was making a personal financial investment in a for-profit company.” In fact, for-profit investments have long been a common part of the CGI. Many millions of dollars in such commitments have been announced at CGI events, with the biggest of these investments in the energy sector. How could Grimaldi not know that? Did he not bother to visit this page of the CGI’s website? Or this one or that one?

If you look at CGI’s record, you’ll know that it makes total sense that Bill Clinton would seek to arrange financing for Energy Pioneer Solutions. The fact that he was connected to some of those involved is immaterial. Most of us find out about cool ideas and projects through our personal or professional networks.

To me, the only mystery in this story is why James Grimaldi would write it—trying to concoct a scandal out of a smart impact investment made six years ago. After all, this is the same James Grimaldi who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his investigation of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

I have two theories as to why Grimaldi got this so wrong.

First, like most reporters, he just doesn’t understand either the Clinton Foundation or impact investing. When most people hear the word “foundation,” they think charity, and you can see why they might think that it would be improper for a foundation to be involved in arranging financing for a for-profit business. Is this stuff confusing enough to even trip up a top reporter? Could James Grimaldi somehow not have clued into the hottest new trend in philanthropy in the course of reporting this story? Maybe so.

Or maybe not, which leads me to my second theory about Grimaldi’s motives—namely, that this story is really about sniffing out a Clinton sex scandal. The New York Post wasted no time today linking one of the original owners of Pioneer Energy Solutions to Bill Clinton in a romantic way, plastering the allegation on its cover and, in the process, badly mangling the WSJ story. The Post depicts the Clinton Foundation itself as making a payout to the company, as opposed to simply arranging financing. Clearly, one reporter on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll didn’t closely read what another had written.

James Grimaldi worked at the Wall Street Journal long before Murdoch bought it, and I’m not suggesting that he’d be the willing tool of a politically motivated attack aimed at weakening the presumptive Democratic nominee. But it isn’t unimaginable that the allure of this story, with its combustible mix of sexual innuendo and ethical impropriety, would pull in Grimaldi against what should have been his better judgment—and that he’d receive more encouragement to keep digging into a non-story than he might have gotten from a newspaper that wasn’t owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The Clinton Foundation does deserve more scrutiny. Maybe a lot more as the election approaches. But this was a sorry day for the Wall Street Journal and journalism broadly.

One last point: Even if this story is baseless, it underscores the risks of mixing high-profile philanthropy with national politics. There is just too little public or media understanding of philanthropy to expect that this subject will be treated properly in the high-octane context of partisan combat.

So here’s a piece of advice for future presidential aspirants: If you have enemies out to get you—and you’re not so bad at wounding yourself—don’t set yourself up as a philanthropic middleman, raising money from numerous major donors and directing it to myriad projects. It’s just going to end up as a big mess in the end.