04:16 - Source: CNN
Bill Clinton addresses allegations about foundation

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Both Clinton's staff and the speaking agency booking engagements for Clinton, expressed concerns about the request.

State Department officials insist the department vetted all the former president's requests while Hillary Clinton was in office.

Washington CNN —  

President Bill Clinton’s aides once explored the possibility of him addressing a lavish energy conference, whose sponsor the Securities and Exchange Commission later accused of using a Ponzi-like scheme to obtain the money to cover the $200,000 speaker fee. The possibility of Clinton’s participation in the event was discussed in an email from Clinton staff to a State Department official obtained by CNN.

Instead, Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, spoke at the September 2012 event, billed as a “U.S. China Energy Summit.”

The company, Luca International, and its top executives are now the subject of a lawsuit alleging securities fraud brought by the SEC in July. The complaint alleges that Luca misspent millions in foreign investor funds for improper purposes, including the summit, an all-expenses-paid golf junket to Pebble Beach, California, designed to recruit more Asian investors to the company.

An email provided to the conservative group Citizens United, obtained by CNN, shows Clinton was initially presented with the offer to speak at the conference and his staff sought permission from the State Department to accept the invitation and its $200,000 speaker fee. Citizens United received the email as part of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act for correspondence between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s top aides.

“Would (the U.S. government) have any concerns about (Bill Clinton) taking this and directing the proceeds to the Clinton Foundation?” a Bill Clinton staffer asked several top advisers to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June 2012.

Both Clinton’s staff and Don Walker, president of the Harry Walker Agency, the speaking agency booking engagements for Bill Clinton, expressed concerns about the request even as the foundation presented it to Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.

“Don Walker is concerned about the host,” the email notes, “and agrees with us it’s strange we can’t get any more information on this host and they have no track record of prior events.”

The summit was presented to Bill Clinton’s team as an educational event for Chinese entrepreneurs focused on “building relationships with both the diplomatic and financial sectors within the United States and China in order to build and strengthen their business relationships and to help maximize the resources for the future of the two countries.”

It’s unclear from the email whether the State Department ultimately nixed the offer, but an official in Bill Clinton’s office told CNN that “ultimately President Clinton did not give this speech.”

The offer was then extended to Bush, who spoke at the summit and is pictured in the company’s promotional material.

Freddy Ford, a Bush spokesman, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. But he told Buzzfeed, who broke the story about Bush’s participation in July, that “While President Bush did speak at an energy summit by that name in 2012, he has no relationship with the firm.”

According to the SEC complaint, Luca “engaged in a fraudulent scheme targeting the Chinese American community as well as investors in Asia to invest in the unregistered offerings of a series of investment funds.”

The company’s CEO, Bingqing Yang, and chief fundraiser, Lei “Lily” Lei, told investors they could expect 20-30% returns on their investments, which would go towards oil and gas drilling operations.

“In reality,” the complaint continues, “Yang, the Luca Managers and Lei deceived investors in the Luca Funds by misrepresenting that their operations were successful and projecting outsized investment returns, all the while knowing that the operations were losing millions of dollars and that the enterprise was sinking under a mountain of debt.”

The complaint describes the scheme as “Ponzi-like” and includes a reference to the 2012 summit.

READ: Group: Emails show Clinton, aides mixed State Department, foundation business

“Yang used approximately $510,000 of investor funds to pay for a so-called ‘U.S. China Energy Summit,’” lawyers for the SEC allege, “which was a 10-day, expenses-paid golf junket to Pebble Beach, California for potential investors from China in September 2012.”

“Costs for the Summit included a $200,000 speaking fee for a former President of the United States and lavish dinners,” the complaint notes.

In a statement responding to the SEC charges in July, Luca disputed the allegations and noted it had retained legal counsel to defend the company. Luca said it “made full disclosure of the risks of investing in oil and gas industry in their security offering documents, followed advice by legal counsel, and did not commit any Ponzi scheme as alleged by SEC.”

The speaker’s circuit has provided former U.S. presidents with a massive source of post-presidential income, a practice some have criticized.

Clinton has brought in more than $100 million in speaking fees after leaving office, including some earned during the time Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

State Department officials insist the department vetted all the former president’s speech requests while his wife was in office – amounting to dozens each year. The official in Clinton’s office said that “as a matter of course, all requests were run by the State Department.”

Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, personally reviewed the requests along with State Department lawyers.

Recent reports show that Mills was also involved in decisions to turn down speaking requests for Bill Clinton related to North Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.