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EXCLUSIVE: McCain Institute Refuses to Disclose Big Donations

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McCain Institute for International Leadership executives refuse to disclose how much money big donors have contributed to the nonprofit that’s named after Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group has learned.

McCain was the architect of the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — more popularly known as “McCain-Feingold” — that required public disclosure of all contributions of at least $250 in federal elections. Former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold co-sponsored the measure with McCain.

But the McCain Institute — created in 2012 with an $8.7 million donation of funds remaining from McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign — refused Monday to disclose the amounts it received from its biggest donors who gave $100,000 or more.

Spokesmen for the McCain Institute and for the Arizona State University (ASU) Foundation — where the nonprofit’s finances are held — refused to divulge any dollar amounts from big ticket donors despite repeated requests by TheDCNF.

A McCain Institute executive referred TheDCNF’s donor request to the ASU Foundation. An ASU Foundation spokesman side-stepped the issue of disclosure, replying to TheDCNF by issuing a statement — “in the spirit of transparency, the McCain Institute for International Leadership elects to provide a list of donors on its website.”

However, the McCain Institute declined to spell out exactly how much money each big donor contributed. The web site only lists donors who have given “$100,000 and above,” which can be misleading.

The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, for instance, is identified as giving $100,000 or more on the Institute’s website. In reality, the Saudis gave $1 million.

By housing the McCain Institute in the ASU foundation, the donations are unavailable under the state’s open records law.

“This is a way to raise money and to protect donor privacy,” Leslie Lenkowsky, a long-time scholar and authority in philanthropy, told TheDCNF.

Former President Bill Clinton appointed Lenkowsky as a founding director of the Corporation for National and Community Services. Former President George W. Bush later named him as the corporation’s CEO.

“This is one of the tricks they can play,” Lenkowsky said. “They ought to be more precise about their donations.”

Foreign donations to the McCain Institute appear particularly problematic. McCain is chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Armed Services, which oversees the military.

Of the 37 donors who contributed $100,000 or more to the McCain Institute, one in three originate from either foreign principals, overseas corporations or foreign governments, according to the nonprofit’s web site. One big donor is anonymous.

McCain has been defensive about the Saudi donation. The senator, “cut off questions from reporters about a $1 million donation by the government of Saudi Arabia to a nonprofit that bears McCain’s name,” according to an April 2015 NBC Phoenix TV news report.

The station reported McCain cut off the questions “after a few minutes,”

“I’ve answered all the questions. I’ve answered all the questions I’m going to answer on it,” he said.

Not only is McCain’s name on the masthead, he is also the honorary convener of the McCain Institute’s signature spring annual meeting, the Sedona Forum. The Sedona Forum is a “high level, private gathering” held at the luxurious Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz.

At the 2017 forum, for example, Meshal Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar’s Ambassador to the U.S., was invited to mingle with the McCain Institute’s pre-selected guests. Qatar is now embroiled with its Middle East neighbors, who have broken off diplomatic relations over its support of terrorist groups, like Hamas, and of Iran.

“When this Republican allows his name to be prominently promoted while at the same time flying around the world, interacting with foreign governments who contribute to his causes, this raises serious questions,” said Charles Ortel, a Wall Street analyst who is a frequent critic of the Clinton Foundation.

Lenkowsky agreed that foreign donations are among the McCain Institute’s biggest problem.

“There’s a clear potential conflict between his public responsibilities and the funders of the McCain Institute,” he said.

“It is exactly the same as the Clinton Foundation,” Lenkowsky added. “Here we had a Secretary of State and a foundation, which they were closely associated, receiving money from foreign governments.”

There are some who believe the donor brackets can be misleading. The Institute only posts three donor categories ranging from zero to $100,000 and above.

In contrast, the Clinton Foundation has 14 donor brackets. Seven of those bands illustrate donations from $250 to $100,000. Seven donations range from $100,000 to $25 million and above.

Lawrence Noble, the general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, suggested more specific brackets would be better.

“The more specific the disclosure, the better. The more detail, the better,” he told TheDCNF in an interview. Noble was general counsel at the FEC for 13 years.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog, told TheDCNF the lack of donor detail constitutes “hypocrisy” for McCain, due to his prominent role in gaining passage of campaign finance reforms.

“The unique issue for Sen. McCain, was that he favored radical transparency on campaign finance. Under federal law, someone who writes a check for $250, their name becomes part of the public record,” Fitton said. “But Senator McCain, a sitting senator with his institute, guarantees no similar level of disclosure there. The hypocrisy is fully apparent with the McCain Institute.”

Donor privacy has been a bedrock for many non-controversial nonprofits, although many donors are pleased when their names and donor categories are published for theatrical or musical programs.

Sean Parnell is the author of a white paper released last week on the need for donor privacy. He is vice president of public policy for the Philanthropy Roundtable, one of the nation’s most prestigious organizations on charitable giving.

Parnell told TheDCNF while donor privacy should be honored, there are problems with the McCain Institute’s refusal to disclose its big donors.

“The policy and practices of the McCain Institute seem to conflict with the senator’s statements regarding money and politics,” he said.

McCain insists that he is not involved with the institute, telling reporters in 2015, “I’m proud that the institute is named after me, but I have nothing to do with it.”

“Senator McCain holds no position with the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, or with its supporting organizations, and has no role in the governance or operation of the Institute,” McCain’s office told TheDCNF. “He is supportive of the university’s goals and programs for the institute, and participates in some institute activities as his schedule allows.”

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