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Originally published Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Clinton donor benefited from legislation backed by Sen. Clinton

An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Clinton's foundation in November 2004, about the same time Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton helped...

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Clinton's foundation in November 2004, about the same time Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman's mall project.

Sen. Clinton helped enact legislation allowing the developer, Robert Congel, to use tax-exempt bonds to help finance the construction of the Destiny USA entertainment and shopping complex, an expansion of the Carousel Center in Syracuse, N.Y.

She also helped secure an earmark in a highway bill that set aside $5 million for Destiny USA roadway construction.

The bill with the tax-free bonds provision became law in October 2004, weeks before the donation was made, and the highway bill with the earmark became law in August 2005, about nine months after the donation was made.

Congel and Philippe Reines, a spokesman for Sen. Clinton, said there was no connection between his donation and her legislative work on his project's behalf.

She supported the expansion of Carousel mall "purely as part of her unwavering commitment to improving upstate New York's struggling economy, and nothing more," Reines said.

Bill Clinton set up his foundation as he was leaving the White House and as his wife was transforming herself from first lady to U.S. senator from New York.

The William J. Clinton Foundation finances Bill Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., and programs that work on AIDS, poverty, climate change and other causes worldwide.

Ethics flash point

Donations to causes and charities favored by lawmakers have been an ethics flash point in Congress in recent months, particularly the controversy over Rep. Charles Rangel's fundraising for a center at the City College of New York from businesses with interests before the House Ways and Means Committee, which he leads. In 2007, Congress enacted a law requiring companies and their lobbyists to disclose donations to charities associated with lawmakers.

But there is no law requiring former presidents or their spouses to disclose money they collect for their foundations.

Bill Clinton's foundation last month revealed the identity of its donors as part of an agreement with President-elect Obama, who selected Hillary Clinton as his nominee for secretary of state.

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Most of the attention on the disclosure list has focused on millions of dollars donated by foreign tycoons and Middle Eastern governments, such as Saudi Arabia, which have an interest in the U.S. foreign policy that Sen. Clinton would direct as the nation's chief diplomat.

Lower on the list was Congel's name, one of about 180 people who had donated $50,000 to $100,000. A Destiny USA spokesman said Congel made a $100,000 donation to Bill Clinton's foundation in November 2004.

"There was no connection with Bill Clinton and the 'green bonds' and the contribution," Congel said. "None at all."

Congel had been a prime force behind Congress' passage of tax-free "green bonds," a program to finance some $2 billion in environmentally friendly projects by relieving investors of federal income taxes on their proceeds from the bonds. By some estimates, the "green bonds" could cost the Treasury about $200 million.

Renewable energy

The way the legislation was written, Congel's Syracuse development, which he agreed to build and run in a way that promotes renewable energy and recycling, was one of four proposed projects that would qualify for the program.

Reines said that Sen. Clinton did not solicit the donation from Congel and was unaware of the timing and amount of it until last month.

Hillary Clinton, who as a Senate candidate in 2000 supported other tax breaks for a Carousel mall expansion to create jobs, did not work alone in getting the subsidies through Congress. The measures had other supporters in the New York delegation, including Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, and Rep. James Walsh, a Republican.

The "green bonds" program was backed by lawmakers from three other states with proposed projects that would qualify for it.

Major GOP fundraiser

Although Congel has sometimes given money to Democrats, he is a major Republican campaign fundraiser. In 2004, he was a "Bush Ranger," gathering more than $200,000 in bundled contributions for the Bush-Cheney re-election effort.

In the most recent election cycle, he donated money to the Republican presidential primary campaigns of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney, and gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee.

Congel said there was nothing incongruous about his donation to Bill Clinton's foundation. "I have a huge interest in our country, and I thought Clinton was a great president," Congel said.

He added, "I think he's a dedicated, dedicated American, and I'm a dedicated, dedicated American, and when we have a president I think we have a right, privilege and obligation to support that president. And I did that with Clinton, and I did that with Bush."

Congel has also given campaign donations to Sen. Clinton and other New York Democrats, including Schumer, another supporter of the subsidies to Destiny USA.

According to the Federal Election Commission Web site, Congel gave $2,000 to Hillary Clinton's campaign in October 1999 and gave her political-action committee a total of $12,500 from March 2002 to January 2005. He has continued to donate to Sen. Clinton's campaigns in the years since the two bills helping Destiny USA passed.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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