The Clinton campaign this week has been broadsided by allegations on Wikileaks of lucrative speaking fees and contributions to the Clinton Foundation totaling as much as $50 million in return for access to the president.
The company at the center of the controversy is Teneo, run by former Clinton advisor Doug Band, who is President of Teneo, along with Irish-born Declan Kelly, who is CEO, and Paul Keary COO.
Band stated in an email to John Podesta that, while the wheeling and dealing involved was “unorthodox,” there was no intention by Teneo to peddle influence.
The story made the front pages of the NY Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post leading to speculation it could play a role in the presidential election.
It was Chelsea Clinton, alarmed by reports that her father was being brazenly used to solicit clients for Teneo, who shouted stop leading to a rift between Teneo and the Clintons which has not been healed. Kelly and Band have had no involvement in the 2016 Clinton campaign as a result.
There is no great surprise in Irish American circles that wheeling and dealing involving Teneo and the Irish-born Kelly have come to light. He is widely known in that community as the ultimate operator who, after a few years in America, was in the inner sanctums of American business and politics and who made powerful friends – and powerful enemies.
(Full disclosure: I previously had a business and friendship relationship with Declan Kelly for several years, but we have had little contact for the last few years.)
Kelly comes from humble roots – a small farming family in Tipperary – and his rise to the top levels of American finance and political influence is astonishing. But it has also seemed to have left him deeply insecure about his place at the top.
For a time Kelly controlled access to the Clintons in the Irish American community, creating deep resentment from some of those who had worked with the Clintons since the early 1990s. His methods were very direct. During a visit to Dublin with Bill Clinton it is alleged a set of instructions were made clear to hotel staff that no one, either staff or guest was to approach Clinton without his say-so and that he, Kelly, was to be allocated the room closest to Clinton's.
Long time Irish friends of Clinton found themselves instructed to work through Kelly when they sought access to the Clintons. For men and women who had been present since the earliest Clinton campaigns, it was a difficult turnaround.
Kelly always demands the prime spot. At the Business and Finance magazine awards dinner in 2010 in Dublin a massive row emerged backstage as to who would introduce the president which almost came to blows in some accounts. Kelly eventually won out but made long-time enemies in the process including leading billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien, who is very close to the Clintons.
It was indicative of a major and puzzling Kelly trait, demanding the limelight irrespective of who was present, grabbing an icy grip-hold of a microphone and letting go when he is good and ready no matter who is waiting to speak after him – even presidents or prime ministers.
That was obvious in Ireland at the Irish-government run Diaspora Economic Conference in 2011. Kelly kept a furious Irish Prime Minister waiting as he introduced Clinton again, and made clear his company Teneo had brought him to Dublin. Clinton himself was said to be incensed by the alleged insult to the Irish leader.
“Clinton went ashen,” wrote Alec MacGillis, editor of Washington-based The New Republic. “Kelly had embarrassed him in front of [the taoiseach] Enda Kenny.”
MacGillis also gave an account of a dinner for luminaries in New York which was attended by Bill Clinton and George Bush. The introductions were made by Kelly as it was a Teneo event. Instead of going immediately to the main figures, the two presidents waiting impatiently, he introduced almost every Teneo executive there first. Bush, in particular, was not pleased.
Most recently, just weeks ago, at an Irish event in the Plaza Hotel, Kelly went on so long the main speaker's time to speak was curtailed.
The need to be the center of attention is very evident. Very few figures create as much love/hate controversy in the Irish American community. Is he the ultimate suck up/kick down operator or does he genuinely belong in the highest corridors of power? It depends on your personal view of him. The answers to that question would be deeply divided.
His winner-take-all strategy can backfire, however, never more so spectacularly as when he decided he would take a run at becoming Chairman of the American Ireland Fund, the most prestigious Irish organization in America, with a membership list that reads like a who's who of Irish American business power.
However, there was deep internal opposition, a legitimate fear that the AIF would become another “A” list for Kelly to plunder, a target-rich environment for Teneo. The fear was the Fund would end up as a functional subsidiary of Teneo Inc. Over a fraught weekend the board opted for John FitzPatrick, CEO of FitzPatrick Hotels, a widely popular choice who harbors no secret ambitions for using the Fund.
It is safe to say given subsequent controversies involving Teneo and Kelly the risk-adverse Ireland Fund board members have breathed a long sigh of relief they did not pick Kelly.
Rather than force a vote he would have lost badly Kelly departed but angrily promised to start a rival operation to take the AIF down. That has not occurred to date. Some of the exchanges were deeply personal insiders say, a side of Kelly emerging they had simply not seen.
Kelly was widely considered one of the most talented Irish guys to hit town when he came to New York in 2000. He had come a different path to success in the public relations field, starting off as a journalist in his hometown newspaper in Nenagh, County Tipperary, before working with the Cork Examiner and then leaping into the public relations world. He was named business journalist of the year in 1994.
He quickly won admirers – and enemies – wherever he went. His brother Alan, a former minister in the Irish government, has a similarly hard-nosed approach to life and is widely disliked by colleagues in his own party, so much so that he could not get a single backer when he attempted to run for Labour Party leader.
Declan Kelly has his detractors too. One PR company leader from all those years ago says he would refuse to shake his hand even now if he met him, saying he never knew anyone so devious. Others, however, laud his 'take no prisoners' attitude and business ability.
His ambition is so evident that he would surely have set eyes on the White House if he had been born here. Instead, he became an inner circle confidante with the Clintons, proving his worth by raising a ton of money - up to $2 million - and, as media accounts this week show, setting up lucrative speaking opportunities for President Clinton, who cares little about the personal side of his finances.
All the signs of a young man in a hurry were there when he arrived in New York, including the successful sale of his public relations firm in Ireland for $15 million which gave him complete independence from the time of his arrival. His firm was sold to Financial Dynamics which was later sold to FTI, a major firm with 3,500 employees. Kelly went along in a senior position.
He got to know Don Keough, then President of Coca-Cola and the most prominent of all Irish American business leaders, who became a strong advocate of Kelly within the company where he now has lucrative access to CEO Muhtar Kent. Doug Band specifically named the two Coke executives in his now infamous memo to John Podesta as clients of Teneo that Clinton Inc. had benefitted from.
Keough had probably one of the top five rolodexes in American business and counted Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who had lived across the road from him in Omaha, among his close friends.
Kelly’s talent as a problem solver has never been in dispute. As Keough told me:
“I’ve wandered around in the world of consultants for a very long and Kelly is the best.
“He is simply a great problem solver,” he said. "You know how many people can tell you what your problems are but never how to solve them?”
Kelly owed a tremendous amount to Keough, who opened doors to corporate America that Kelly desperately needed, which made even stranger his failure to show up at the funeral when Keough passed away last year.
Most Coke senior executives have little time for Kelly, seeing him as so nakedly ambitious as to be ready to tread on any toes by any means, but he has the key relationship with CEO Muhtar Kent.
Kelly was also politically astute and made clear early on he was seeking political access as much as business success. He met Hillary Clinton at an event my magazine, Irish America, was hosting for her in New York in 2006. Soon Kelly was inching his way into the Clinton inner circle and became a major fundraiser for the 2008 run for the White House.
So close was he to Clinton that when she got the job as Secretary of State he got the job as economic envoy to Northern Ireland. He promptly demanded an office in the State Department, much to the chagrin of the career diplomats. He had left FTI at that point and was contractually barred from joining a competitor or starting one of his own so the Irish job worked out perfectly.
When he returned from his envoy posting he began to build up Teneo with a series of high-profile hirings and diversification. Recently, a Wall Street Journal report stated that company founders valued Teneo at $1 billion and might go public next year.
The Clinton/Teneo connection has come up long before this week's WikiLeaks. The New York Times and Politico have both done major investigative pieces but found Kelly utterly uncooperative and downright nasty at times with threats to go to publishers of the publications. Neither investigation yielded much, other than the current swirling questions around Teneo and their real relationship with the Clintons.
Most experts consider $1 billion a wildly optimistic valuation for a public relations company currently getting hit with bad coverage in the mainstream media.
But Kelly has surprised before and will fight hard to keep Teneo relevant. How much the Podesta email leak damages the company, if at all, remains to be seen
His hard-charging ways may have gone too far and lost him the access to the Clintons just as it seems Hillary will be elected. But no doubt he knows there are a lot of other fish in the sea in America. Whether he can land them with all the Teneo corner-cutting and over-exposure currently remains to be seen.
He won’t fail for want of trying.