An interesting piece ran in today’s New York Times. Richard Painter, the former chief Ethics Lawyer for George W. Bush and a former University of Minnesota law professor, wrote that Hillary Clinton has not violated any law in her dealings with the State Department and the Clinton Foundation. Let’s have that again: Hillary Clinton has not violated any federal ethics law. None. Not crooked. Not dirty. Not sordid. Not the Wicked Witch of the West. The Clinton Foundation at most is a product of the Spoils System, and to the victors go the spoils.
“Was there favoritism?” Painter asks, then the discourse trails off about something having to do with the woods and a wild bear. Of course, officials elected and appointed play favorites. That’s probably how you got your first job – through somebody you know. I know I did.
“If favoritism by political appointees toward outside persons or organizations were illegal,” writes Painter, “the United States government would be quite different than it is today.” In short, the answer to the question about favoritism is a resounding “Duh?” We used to call it the spoils system. Americans didn’t invent it. It’s been around at least as long as tribes have existed. Doesn’t everyone have a slow relative who needs a boost? No? Well, maybe that slow relative is you.
Or maybe some smart kid from your district applies, whose family has supported you since you first ran for Town Council. Now that you’re a Congressman and the kid is a Senior at Excited State, he’ll be working as one of your aides. Believe me, that kid worked hard and deserves a chance. So do the other 10,000 kids whose letters went directly to the circular file. Fair, it isn’t. Painter’s point is that it’s how Washington has always worked and is not about to change, no matter who wins.
The Appearance of Impropriety
Painter addresses the tougher problem, that this Foundation is unconventional because its funds come principally from donations rather than family wealth. Those donors are not always disinterested people. They have expectations. Even without a smoking gun, Clinton’s opposition will scrutinize every appointment, appropriation or award for a link to a donation and every donation to an appointment, appropriation or award. That’s as it should be, because these transactions in parallel create the appearance, if not the fact, of impropriety.
If even the appearance of impropriety is to be avoided, Painter argues, then Bill and Chelsea Clinton should step down, and Hillary should vow never to take part in the Foundation after she leaves office. At this point, I’d be tempted to tell Mr. Painter that he is coloring outside the lines if it weren’t for the fact that the Clintons always paint so close to those same lines. This gets us back to the beginning. Nothing they have done is illegal, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. If there is a hole, they’ve been known to slip through it. Part of Clinton Fatigue was exhaustion of following them through their scrapes with law and ethics. They’ve usually prevailed (except for Bill being disbarred for not knowing what “is” is).
For example, it recently – today – came to light that some of Bill’s personal aides doubled up at the Clinton Foundation. They are being compensated with funds paid by the federal government under the Former President’s Act even though Bill Clinton could afford to pay his aides from the family’s own funds. Plus, they were drawing pay from the Foundation. In addition, government funds were used to buy IT equipment for the fund, as well as for the Clintons’ private servers. Not illegal but sleezy, the kind of thing that Bill’s gotten smacked for in the past. I suggest that Congress take another look at that statute because there is a hole Bill could drive a truck through –and did.
If Hillary is elected and all of the Clintons step away from the Foundation, and if they agree not to double dip out of the Former Presidents’ Fund, will that keep everybody quiet? Of course not. There will always be a new version of the Lincoln Bedroom, the Chinese contributors, the Bangladeshi banker, the aides with two pay checks, and the moving van backed up to the White House memoribilia room. Clintons will be Clintons.
Hillary, Spoils and All
Will Hillary overreach? Duh. But she’s far less likely to lead us into financial disaster, global depression or another insane war than what’s-his-name.
And in the end, I will go with someone who knows the political landscape and its complexities, even if some of the White House silverware’s gone missing.