(NY Times) – As chief of staff and counselor to Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Cheryl D. Mills worked ceaselessly to help a South Korean garment maker open a factory in Haiti, the centerpiece of United States government efforts to jump-start the island nation’s economy after the 2010 earthquake.
Ms. Mills took the lead on smoothing the way for the company, Sae-A Trading, which secured millions of dollars in incentives to make its Haiti investment more attractive, despite criticism of its labor record elsewhere. When she presided over the project’s unveiling in September 2010, she introduced Sae-A’s chairman, Woong-ki Kim, as the most important person at the ceremony, which included Mrs. Clinton and the Haitian prime minister.
Mr. Kim would later become important to Ms. Mills in a far more personal way — as a financial backer of a company she started after leaving the State Department in 2013. The company, BlackIvy Group, is pursuing infrastructure projects in Tanzania and Ghana, the only African nations in the “Partnership for Growth,” an Obama administration initiative that Mrs. Clinton helped introduce that promotes investment in developing countries.
The partnership with Mr. Kim sheds light on the business activities of Ms. Mills — a longtime Clinton loyalist who is likely to play a significant role in any future Clinton White House — as well as the interlocking public and private relationships that have long characterized the Clintons’ inner circle. A lawyer, Ms. Mills has been a target of Republican critics for her central role in determining which emails from Mrs. Clinton’s private server would be publicly disclosed, and for sharing information about Africa — later designated as classified — with the Clinton Foundation while working at the State Department.
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During Ms. Mills’s tenure at the department, Mr. Kim’s company, Sae-A, became a donor to the Clinton Foundation, through its Clinton Global Initiative, and Ms. Mills remained involved in foundation matters. According to emails hacked from the accounts of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and released by WikiLeaks, Ms. Mills helped draft memos and consulted on internal organizational issues at the foundation, though she used her personal Gmail account and not her government email.
Another close Clinton aide at the State Department, Huma Abedin, was for a time permitted to work for the foundation and an outside consulting firm while serving as a “special government employee.” Ms. Mills was also granted the same special designation after leaving the department, during the period when she was getting BlackIvy off the ground. The unpaid, part-time government role was “solely focused on Haiti” and did not involve her activities at BlackIvy, according to her spokesman, Eric London.
Since teaming up through BlackIvy, Ms. Mills and Mr. Kim have maintained close business ties, appearing together last year for the opening of a new Sae-A factory in Costa Rica where they cut the ribbon alongside Costa Rica’s president, Luis Guillermo Solís. In Africa, representatives of the United States Agency for International Development have consulted with BlackIvy and Sae-A about efforts to expand the textile trade in Ghana, where BlackIvy says the country’s 23-cents-an-hour minimum wage “compares favorably” to higher wages in China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Federal officials are barred from using their positions to negotiate future employment or exchange services for something of value, and no evidence has emerged to suggest that occurred with BlackIvy. Both Ms. Mills and Mr. Kim deny that his investment was influenced by the substantial assistance she provided his company while serving as Mrs. Clinton’s right hand at the State Department.
Ms. Mills, 51, declined to be interviewed for this article, but Mr. London, a BlackIvy spokesman, said she had consulted with the State Department ethics office before accepting Mr. Kim’s investment “to ensure it was consistent with any rules that applied to her because of her service.”
“Ms. Mills and Mr. Kim met during her work for the State Department in Haiti during earthquake reconstruction,” Mr. London said. “She had no personal business ventures and no discussions about any prospective business with Mr. Kim while she was at State.”
Karen Seo, a spokeswoman for Sae-A, said the State Department’s assistance in Haiti played no role in Mr. Kim’s decision to invest in BlackIvy. His discussions about making the investment began in “late 2014,” she said, more than a year after Ms. Mills had left the government.
Ms. Seo said that Sae-A “currently has no plans to invest in garment and textile manufacturing facilities in Africa,” and that Ms. Mills had no business relationship with Sae-A outside of BlackIvy, adding that her appearance with Mr. Kim at the Sae-A factory opening in Costa Rica was of a social nature. “Ms. Mills was invited and came to the Costa Rica event as a friend, as did many others,” she said.
Ms. Mills first gained public notice in the 1990s as a member of the legal team that defended President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she worked for Mrs. Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. While she has said she has no formal role with Mrs. Clinton’s current campaign for president, she remains a close confidante — she was one of the few people aware of Mrs. Clinton’spneumonia diagnosis days before it was made public.
While at the State Department, Ms. Mills took the lead on a number of projects important to Mrs. Clinton, perhaps none more so than Haiti.
Even before the January 2010 earthquake, the impoverished Caribbean nation was the focus of attention from the Clintons. Mr. Clinton, whose foundation is active there, had been named a United Nations special envoy to Haiti, and as early as April 2009, just a few months after becoming secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton was being forwarded emails from Ms. Mills containing economic development ideas.
Some of those ideas were from Jean-Louis Warnholz, an economist whose consulting business provided “intelligence on African markets.” In emails and meetings with the Clintons and Ms. Mills, he advocated investment in textiles and agriculture as a way to create jobs, a theory that was fast-tracked in Haiti after the earthquake with a proposal for an industrial park anchored by a major garment factory.
Ms. Mills soon hired Mr. Warnholz as her own adviser at the State Department — he would later join her at BlackIvy — and the two worked closely to push the industrial park concept. After overtures to another South Korean garment company fell through, Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Mills met with Sae-A Trading executives during a trip to Seoul to pitch the idea.
Sae-A supplies clothing to some of the largest American retailers, including Walmart and Kohl’s, and has been accused of illegal tactics against union organizers at a plant in Guatemala, charges the company disputes.
Ultimately, the United States provided about $124 million to develop a power plant, housing and other improvements for the Haiti industrial park, while an international development bank contributed $100 million and the Haitians provided the land. Sae-A agreed to invest $78 million. Sae-A was blunt about the need to make the deal worth the money.
“This is business,” a company spokesman said at the time. “At the end of the day, it’s about making a profit.”
In addition to being good for Sae-A, the Haiti project recast the low-profile Mr. Kim as the sort of enlightened global capitalist the Clintons favor, earning him appearances at the Clinton Global Initiative and other international forums. When the industrial park opened for business in October 2012, the Clintons were on hand for the celebration. Mrs. Clinton thanked Mr. Kim “for everything that you and the leadership of Sae-A is doing,” and she praised Ms. Mills for being the “real driver of our government’s support for everything that we see here today.”
Six months after she resigned from the State Department in February 2013, Ms. Mills incorporated BlackIvy Group. She has described it as a “private operating company that builds commercial enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Mr. Kim was among a handful of prominent investors in BlackIvy, according to a description that was once on BlackIvy’s website but has since been removed. The deleted page carried the heading “Our Team” and listed, in addition to Mr. Kim: Continental Grain, a multinational agribusiness with operations in Haiti; Steve Case, the founder of AOL; the Wall Street financier John Mack; the hedge fund founder Raymond Dalio; and Beck, Mack & Oliver, an investment firm.
The executive chairman of BlackIvy is Anthony Welters, a retired health insurance executive and longtime friend and mentor to Ms. Mills who has raised money for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. His son, Bryant, works for BlackIvy, and his wife, Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, was the American ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago from 2010 to 2012.
In July, two BlackIvy representatives, including Bryant Welters, met with government leaders in Trinidad, part of what the prime minister’s office there said was a visit to explore “avenues for doing business with Trinidad and Tobago.”
Asked why BlackIvy was in the Caribbean, far outside its stated market areas in Africa, the company’s spokesman, Mr. London, said it had nothing to do with Ms. Welters’s connections as a former ambassador.
BlackIvy, he said, was not actually seeking business in Trinidad, but met with companies there “to learn about their successes in the region and to explore opportunities for them to establish operations in Ghana and replicate those successes.”
What BlackIvy has accomplished so far is not clear. It signed an agreement with officials in Tanzania to develop a transportation hub, but media reports there suggest it is progressing slowly.
A Tanzanian government audit in March questioned how BlackIvy was chosen, saying “there was no evidence” it was through a competitive bidding process. Mr. London said competitive bidding was not needed because BlackIvy’s project is privately funded and there is no financial risk to the government.
In Ghana, where BlackIvy has been pursuing an industrial park project, a PowerPoint presentation prepared by BlackIvy cited the country’s low minimum wage as one of several competitive advantages that made Ghana “an ideal entry point to the West African market.”
Defending the model of attracting investment with promises of cheap labor, Mr. London offered an argument very similar to the one American officials made when explaining why Sae-A’s factory would be good for Haiti.
“The industrial park will increase manufacturing in Ghana — creating jobs and catalyzing growth — which benefits the country and investors,” he said. “Wages usually rise when manufacturing sectors expand and produce higher-value goods, which is what we want to see in Ghana.”
BlackIvy’s rationale did not sway labor advocates like Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, who had criticized the Haiti project as a misguided American relief effort that glossed over Sae-A’s labor-relations history.
“When you urge garment manufacturers producing in countries like Bangladesh, where wages are far too low for workers to adequately support their families, to move production to countries with even lower wages, it undercuts the efforts of apparel workers across the Global South to persuade governments, employers and major apparel brands to lift wages to a decent level,” Mr. Nova said.
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