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FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2016 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Philadelphia. More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money, either personally or through companies or groups, to the Clinton Foundation. It's an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Here's what ethics experts think about Hillary Clinton's latest email debacle


Here's what ethics experts think about Hillary Clinton's latest email debacle

Watch: Do Hillary Clinton's latest emails undercut her own pledge to reduce political influence?

As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton has vowed to end wealthy special interests' stranglehold on government.

But as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton routinely granted VIP access to big donors to her family charity,  according to new emails that show how connected players gained access to her through top aides.

The revelations, contained in emails recovered by the FBI from her private server and her calendars, have at least one ethics expert concluding she had an ethical obligation to recuse herself from such meetings. 

How extensive was donor access inside the State Department?

More than half of the meetings  Clinton took with private interests while she was secretary of state were with people who directly or indirectly donated to the Clinton Foundation, according to an Associated Press report released Tuesday.

The report was just the latest piece in an ongoing controversy  over the private charity her husband and former President Bill Clinton ran.

Conservative group spearheading accusations 

The accusations are coming primarily from the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, which on Monday released 725 pages of emails that showed several Clinton Foundation donors trying to secure face-time with or favors from then-Secretary Clinton.

"These new emails confirm that Hillary Clinton abused her office by selling favors to Clinton Foundation donors," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement (Read the statement here).

Emails don't show 'special favors' given

Though the emails and the Associated Press report did show Clinton taking meetings with Clinton Foundation donors, neither showed that Clinton was giving special favors to those donors.

That's at least according to Scott Amey, the general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a government ethics watchdog group. 

Ethics expert 'disappointed'

Amey told Circa he was "disappointed" that Clinton Foundation donors were able to gain access to then-Secretary Clinton and her top aides  -- but that that access was not necessarily a violation of federal ethics law.

"I don't think we've seen any evidence that laws were broken," he said. "I'm disappointed in the fact that there weren't better protections established that didn't screen people off from having these interactions with the Clinton Foundation and doing some bidding for their donors."

Clinton should have recused herself 

Amey also told Circa that, even though Clinton's meetings weren't illegal, she should have avoided taking them if she wanted to remain on high ethical ground.

"I think she should have been recusing herself from anyone who had involvement with the Foundation, and especially foundation donors," he said. "There should have been a list of different people who gave money to that foundation that she had business ties with that were on the 'Hillary Clinton should Avoid' list.

We have to do our best to make sure the government represents the people, and not just the people who are connected.
Scott Amey

Clinton should have avoided 'appearance' of conflict

If Clinton knew someone who donated to her charity wanted a meeting, Amey said, she should have let one of her staffers handle it. That way, there would not even be an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Other ethics experts on the same page

Amey isn't the only ethicist to have weighed in on Clinton's meetings with Foundation donors. Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, told USA Today that more information is needed to know whether Clinton's meetings with donors actually produced special favors.

 "It's not clear from these emails what actually happened after most of this stuff," she said. "That's the missing piece of this puzzle."

Amey wants investigation, too

Amey agreed, saying it's "worth an investigation  to make sure ... there wasn't special favors or treatment provided to the Clinton foundation and their donors that crossed an ethical line."Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is also calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton's emails. 

The claim that Clinton gave special access to donors is one that her campaign flatly denies. 

"Once again this right-wing organization that has been going after the Clintons since the 1990s is distorting facts to make utterly false attacks," said Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin, referencing Judicial Watch.

"The fact remains that Hillary Clinton never took action as Secretary of State because of donations to the Clinton Foundation."

What isn't in dispute is that Clinton's emails describe the very special interest access she began her presidential campaign vowing to end.

During a speech in late last year the former first lady declared that during her presidency she would end a political system "hijacked by billionaires and special interests." 

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