Ethics


Especially in the wake of recent scandals emerging from Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, and William Jefferson, to name just a few, Americans have become tragically accustomed to a certain background level of sleaze from the average politician.

But Barack Obama is hardly an average politician; his youth, Washington outsider status, and stirring rhetoric have defined his candidacy as being dedicated to hope, moral consciousness, and a shift away from beltway politics as usual.  There are certainly many upsides to these associations, but a notable downside is that some commentators are surprised and disappointed when he stoops to politics as usual.  Thus he attracts coverage and criticism for actions that likely wouldn’t raise eyebrows coming from one of the other candidates.

That being said, Obama cannot expect to benefit from his unique reputation without attracting unique scrutiny.  Several weeks ago, Reality Check covered Obama’s controversial ties to alleged slumlord Tony Rezko.  A recent article in the Chicago Tribune further questions Obama’s celebrated commitment to ending corruption and ensuring open government:

‘Obama’s record of local endorsements — one measure of how he has used his nascent political clout — has drawn criticism from those who say it reflects his deference to Chicago’s established political order and runs counter to his public calls for clean government.

In the 2006 Democratic primary, for example, Obama endorsed first-time candidate Alexi Giannoulias for state treasurer despite reports about loans Giannoulias’ family-owned Broadway Bank made to crime figures. Records show Giannoulias and his family had given more than $10,000 to Obama’s campaign, which banked at Broadway.

Obama endorsed former Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd), calling her “a very early supporter of my campaign.” Tillman was then under fire for her stewardship of the scandal-plagued Harold Washington Cultural Center, where contracts benefited members of her family.

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Does John Edwards’ work for a hedge fund contradict his populist fight for the Middle Class? I’m not sure, but John Edwards’ wealth has made a lot of people skeptical. Whether it’s the $400 haircut or the $1.25 million income this past year, most of which came from a hedge fund, many pundits would argue that John Edwards’ lavish lifestyle makes him a hypocrite when advocating for the poor. One particular comment from the MSNBC Political Blog said:

 Oh, I see what’s going on, Edwards is buying “capitalism offsets” he makes lots of money being a trial lawyer and now an undisclosed amount at a hedge fund, but, since he also helped to raise minimum wage and organize unions, etc. he’s not really a “dirty” capitalist. This way he doesn’t have to change his lavish lifestyle, that was afforded to him largely due to our capitalism based economy, in order to rail against the horrors of capitalism. He just has to buy “capitalism offset credits”. This is genius. I should start a company offering capitialism credits. I could make a fortune! Oh, wait, then I guess I would have to buy capitalism credits from myself. Oh, well its been done before.

I think its unhelpful to criticize the rich for helping the poor, but I understand the impulse. MSNBC’s First Read quoted Edwards’ talking about his financial dealings:

On Friday, in what seemed to be his most extensive comments on camera on the subject, Edwards dodged questions about his involvement with the hedge fund. When asked to reiterate his position, Edwards responded, “Sure. Well, basically, what I have been doing since the last election is a group of things. One of them is, I did consulting work for Fortress, which is a hedge fund in New York.” After a pause, Edwards listed his other activities during this time — running the poverty center at the University of North Carolina; helping to raise the minimum wage in six states and organize workers into unions; starting a college program for poor students in North Carolina; and doing humanitarian work in Africa. Edwards stated these experiences outweighed his work at Fortress. “So it is one of a group of things I have been involved in and I think that certainly if you look at all those things in totality, it is pretty clear where my commitment is.”

I’m not sure if this is Edwards dodging the question or not, it’s clear he was nervous or at least uncomfortable with his work at Fortress. This could be fear borne out of being caught in a hypocrisy, or a legitimate discomfort with his own privileged position within the anti-poverty fight. His conversation with MSNBC sought to answer the allegations a bit:

Asked if his work at the hedge fund conflicts with the idea Edwards is the candidate for the middle class, he reiterated the benefits from his consulting work. “I do think it’s important for the president of the United States to have a good understanding of our financial markets, how they operate, where the incentives are, where the incentives aren’t.”

In a surprising move today, all of the major candidates from both parties, except for one lone contender, have broken the 35-year-old tradition of Presidential candidates disclosing their income tax records.

Edwards even released his records four years ago when running for President, but no longer. He now refuses to give details about his income taxes or about the money he made consulting for controversial hedgefund Fortress. Giuliani refuses to speak about the millions he’s made with his consulting firm. He won’t even disclose the firm’s clients.

And who’s the lone candidate who’s kept up the tradition and released his tax returns? It’s Barack Obama. He went on record about it, saying,

“I think it’s critical that people know who their candidates are – what their sources of income are, if we have any potential conflicts.”

Bravo to Barack. How can the rest of the candidates speak about Government ethics and transparency when they themselves refuse to be personally transparent? And what has made them break this established tradition? While there’s no evidence to suggest unethical behavior, the appearance of impropriety is certainly strong.

flip-flop.jpg ???

The Politico has a provocative must-read exposé of Giuliani’s history as a progressive — information that has the potential to seriously undermine Giuliani‘s candidacy as it becomes more well-known and if it’s accurate.  He might be able to get away with being pro-choice, but not with public perception that many of his conservative statements on the campaign trail could be what he calls a “political thing.”  Some of the more shocking statements in this story are not sourced and surely the author doesn’t meet Reality Check neutrality standards.  Still, it’s a valuable part of the debate and surely a sign of talking points we’ll see in the future as the other candidates seek to tear Giuliani down.

‘In college, Rudy attacked senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 GOP presidential nominee, as an “incompetent, confused and sometimes idiotic man,” and he urged Republicans to “find men who will adequately address themselves to the problems of discrimination, of poverty, of education, of public housing and the many more problems that Sen. Goldwater and company throw aside in the name of small laissez-faire government.”

‘Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, a liberal icon, put it this way: “(Giuliani’s) basically very pragmatic. And he’s progressive. He is not a Neanderthal, a primitive conservative. But look, he’s a clever human being. He can shave and draw fine distinctions when he needs to.” […]

‘Rudy first switched from Democrat to Independent, and then to Republican, not because he embraced the tenets of conservatism but in order to move up the U.S. Justice Department ladder.

‘”He only became a Republican after he began to get all these (Justice Department) jobs,” Rudy’s mother, Helen Giuliani, told Barrett. “He’s definitely not a conservative Republican. He thinks he is, but he isn’t. He still feels very sorry for the poor.”

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This one didn’t get reported much; I happened upon it while reading the full transcript of the Republican debate.  In contrast to Giuliani’s hugely controversial support for public funding for abortions — visible in these two YouTube videos both from 1989 and from just a month ago on Aprl 4th — he abruptly reversed course in the G.O.P. debate last week.

In this first video, from 1989, Giuliani supports “public funding for abortions for poor women” so that no one is denied resources to make the abortion decision.  Although he seems to speak in a global sense, he does not specify location and, as a New York politician, he could well have been referring only to New York law.

The second statement is much more explicit.  “If it’s a constitutional right, even if you do it on a state by state basis, you have to make sure people are protected.”  He seems to be saying that maybe states might have to pay for it instead of the federal government, but that a national constitutional right must be protected everywhere.

In last week’s debate, however, Giuliani completely flipped and shifted more towards his “states’ rights” position of electing strict constructionists and letting the chips fall as they may.  He evokes the Hyde Amendment, the 1976 law forbidding federal funding for abortions.  From The New York Times:

‘Mr. MATTHEWS: Why do you support the use of public funds for abortion?

MR. GIULIANI: I don’t. I support the Hyde amendment. I hate abortion. I wish people didn’t have abortions.

MR. MATTHEWS: So you’re not for funding at all?

MR. GIULIANI: I believe that the Hyde amendment should remain the law. States should make their decision. Some states decide to do it, most states decide not to do it. And I think that’s the appropriate way to have this decided.

MR. MATTHEWS: Should New York — when you were mayor of New York, should they have been paying for — the state should have been paying for —

MR. GIULIANI: That’s a decision New York made a long time ago, and New York —

MR. MATTHEWS: And where were you on that?

MR. GIULIANI: I supported it in New York. But I think in other places, people can come to a different decision.’

In contrast to April 4th, when he supported protecting the constitutional right to abortion for all women, he now explicitly mandates that funding be available on a state by state basis.

The question for the race is whether shifts like this will undermine Giuliani’s reputation as a strong and independent-minded leader, especially after the new revelations that he gave money to Planned Parenthood in the 1990s.  And will his new rhetoric reframing his moderate record offset the erosion in support that could result from such besmirchment of his image?

We at Reality Check wrote a piece a few days ago about Barack Obama’s ethics troubles with developer Tony Rezko. Newsweek is reporting on another possible ethics problem. They uncovered a “secret” Obama campaign fax sent by Molly Buford, an employee of both Obama’s Senate office and his campaign, from an official Senate fax machine.

The fax from Buford was a political call list sent to Obama’s personal aide in South Carolina. In addition, the fax had the official seal of the U.S. Senate on it.

The article insinuates that this act is in contrast to the ethics-laden rhetoric of Obama and his “new politics” campaign. Is it? Reality Check’s mission is to parse out true inconsistencies and flip flops from mere mistakes. Newsweeks scoop is nothing more than a weak stab at playing “gotcha” with Obama, trying to catch him as a typical forked tongue politician.

Eh, I don’t think an innocent mistake by a campaign staffer using a fax machine constitutes any kind of ethics inconsistency. Let’s all take a deep breath. Yes, we need to pay close attention to make sure candidates are consistent and honest. But grabbing at straws like this is low and unhelpful for anyone.

Obama has run on a platform touting clean and, above all, open government. Has he been an exemplar of open government and a leader of transparent legislating? Is he practicing the “new politics” that he preaches?

According to Barack Obama’s website:

“Barack Obama has been a leader in the fight for open and honest government. As a U.S. Senator, he spearheaded the effort to clean up Washington in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. In a politically charged election year, Obama acknowledged that corruption was a problem that plagued both political parties.”

Well, in the past week information has been coming out that suggests Obama may not be so squeaky clean after all. His current words and past actions don’t seem wholly aligned.

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