May 4, 2015 / 12:15 PM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 3-Bill Clinton defends charity, says won't give up paid speeches

(Recasts, adds State Department comment)

By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON, May 4 (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said on Monday he will continue to give paid speeches while his wife, Hillary Clinton, runs for president amid criticism of the income her family draws from people, including foreigners, with business before the U.S. government.

He also said he may consider stepping down or taking “less of an executive role” at the Clinton Foundation should his wife become president. The Clintons’ political opponents have criticized the foundation for accepting funding from foreign governments for its endowment and for its charitable work abroad.

“I gotta pay our bills,” Clinton told NBC News from Kenya when asked about his speeches, for which he sometimes charges more than $500,000, in an interview taped over the weekend. “We do our best to vet them. And I have turned down a lot of them. If I think there’s something wrong with it, I don’t take it.”

His decision to emerge from the sidelines and speak out about the Clinton Foundation reflects concerns about getting Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination back on a sound footing after it took a pounding in recent weeks.

The former first lady, also a previous secretary of state and former senator from New York, has attempted to present herself as a candidate who would fight for everyday Americans.

But her campaign has been on the defensive over questions about foreign donations to the family’s charitable organization and whether her work as President Barack Obama’s first-term secretary of state was influenced by the donations.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we have never done anything knowingly inappropriate in terms of taking money to influence any kind of American government policy,” Clinton said. “That just hasn’t happened.” There was nothing sinister in getting wealthy people around the world to donate to a charity that focuses on helping poor people, he said.

Scrutiny of the foundation has focused on foreign donations as well as on Bill Clinton.

The former president described the controversy as old news.

“There’s been a very deliberate attempt to take the foundation down,” Clinton said.

The Clinton Foundation and an associated charity confirmed to Reuters in March for the first time that they failed to adhere to central parts of an ethics agreement Hillary Clinton signed with the White House that required heightened transparency while she was secretary of state.

A State Department spokesman said on Monday the department was “not aware of any evidence” that donations to the foundation influenced the actions that Clinton took as secretary of state.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Ted Botha

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