Friday, August 28, 2009

Cronyism Is Business As Usual--But Isn't Nepotism Illegal?

Something I tried to publish elsewhere in 2009 but to no avail. Perhaps worth another look now:
Being too adept a student of politics may yet prove the undoing of Barack Obama. On June 17, the White House announced the members of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. Boring as it sounds, it may harbor the smoking gun that proves the president a criminal.

You may not know this, but a lot of Chicago government is what might be called a "family affair." The Daley family, of course, is the most famous and obvious example. Richard J. Daley (known to friend and foe alike as "Boss") ruled the city for many years, and was eventually succeeded by his son, the current Mayor, Richard M. Daley (known to many as "Ritchie.")

And there's Rod Blagojevich (remember him?) He comes to power through his wife, Patty Mell, whose Daddy, Richard,was a Chicago alderman who got his son-in-law a job with another alderman, Ed Vrdolyak. From there, Rod got a job under then states-attorney Richard M. Daley (current mayor and former employer of Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Arne Duncan, and many more who have become familiar names in the past seven months). Eventually, his father-in-law backed Rod to become a state representative, congressman, and governor of Illinois.

You see, in Chicago, it's all about family and friends. Though not a "natural born" Chicagoan, West Coast transplant Barack Obama had no problem adapting to the culture of clout--and now he's brought it to the White House.

You may have noticed that there are an almost absurd number of Chicagoans distributed throughout the administration. Let's look now at a little-noticed set of appointments: the members of the Presidential Commission on White House Fellowships.

Sure, it's a special kind of coziness that lets members of the media have a presidential appointment. Here we have both NPR and NBC represented, through John Hockenberry and Tom Brokaw. But there is personal coziness here, as well.

For example, we have Brain Traubert. Who's he?

Well, he just happens to be (by total coincidence, I'm sure) the husband of Penny Pritzker, who (you may have missed this moment) was about to be nominated by President Obama to be Secretary of Commerce, but was skipped at the last minute because it was thought that her vast holdings, particularly her ownership of Hyatt Hotels, might be a stumbling block to confirmation. There was also the slight problem of her presiding over the collapse of Chicago's Superior Bank during the Savings and Loan scandal. Pritzker was the person who introduced Barack Obama to her friend George Soros, and was reportedly the woman who told the state Senator to make his famous speech against the Iraq War.

Now that you know who Traubert is, I'll tell you who the Director of the program, Cindy S. Moelis, is.

Moelis is a very close friend of Michelle Obama. They worked together in Mayor Daley's office, and Cindy served on the Board when Michelle founded Public Allies the model organization for our new national volunteerism infrastructure, as outlined in the GIVE/SERVE Act. She's also the Executive Director of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation (doesn't that sound familiar?) And her husband works for Transportation Secretary and fellow Illinois friend of Barack (despite being a Republican), Ray LaHood.

Then there's Eleanor Kaye Wilson, reportedly the Obama children's godmother, and with whom they often stayed during the campaign. Babysitting bonus, anyone?

And the crony that no one seems to have spotted, Deborah Harmon, just happens to be on the Board of the Sidwell Friends School--the school that Obama's children both attend.

Speaking of schools, here's an interesting coincidence. Pierre Omidyar, founder of ebay, serves as a trustee of The Punahou School--the elite prep school Obama went to (any chance he could get us the President's school records? No one else can, apparently.)

But all that is just garden-variety political horse trading. Politicians do it all the time. And Chicago politicians have it down to a science.

But the crowning achievement in undeserved appointing is Maya Soetoro-Ng. Against this array of people who have started foundations, or been CEOs, or spent decades in the media--against this backdrop we have little Sister Maya. What are her achievements?

Maya Soetoro-Ng, PhD. has taught and developed Humanities curriculum in public and private schools in New York and Hawaii for fifteen years. She also taught Multicultural Education and Educational Theory at the University of Hawaii’s College of Education. In 2007 and 2008, she campaigned across more than a dozen states for her brother, President Barack Obama. Her children’s book Ladder to the Moon will be published in the winter, and she is currently working on a book about high school Peace Education.

So...she's taught in two states, wrote one as yet unpublished children's book and is working on another, and campaigned for her brother.

Move over, Caroline Kennedy.

The Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet noticed it, but let it go. Even the Huffington Post had an article poking a little bit at the Commission. But nothing too serious. And everyone let it float away.

And why not? It's a presidential commission, meets a few times a year to make decisions, and probably has no compensation.

Perhaps true. But according to the Chicago model, the ability to grant a favor is much more valuable an asset than the ability to procure one. A White House Fellowship is a precious and coveted prize. It carries with it a salary of $100,000, top security clearance, the ability to move within the corridors of power and meet a vast array of powerful politicians, and the promise of a brilliant and influential future.

The ability to determine who gets those plum positions is what Chicago pols call "clout."

So, yes, it might be important to watch who you are putting on a Commission like this. As noted, at the time, there was some mention that Obama had put a few friends and his sister on the Commission. The question no one bothered to ask, though, was this: is it legal?

If the issue was raised at all, tangentially to something else, it was quickly noted that, of course, Bobby Kennedy was the Attorney General, so it must be legal.

But, wait. Let's not turn away so quickly.

Yes, Bobby Kennedy did serve as the Attorney General for his brother, President John F. Kennedy. But, try to remember. What was the next president's relationship like with that Attorney General? Hmm. Not good. Is it possible that "Well, Jack appointed Bobby" isn't really a good defense to straight-up nepotism?

As it turns out, yes, it is possible.

As a matter of fact, there's a pretty straightforward part of the U.S. Code that addresses this (not coincidentally passed in 1967). It reads as follows:

(b) A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement,in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official. An individual may not be appointed, employed, promoted, or advanced in or to a civilian position in an agency if such appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement has been advocated by a public official, serving in or exercising jurisdiction or control over the agency, who is a relative of the individual.


But would that apply to the president? And Maya Soetoro-Ng is only his half-sister, right? So perhaps the law doesn't apply.

But this is how "public official" is defined:

(2) "public official" means an officer (including the President and a Member of Congress)....

That seems to answer that.

And "relative" means:

an individual who is related to the public official as father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, or half sister.

So, it would seem that "half sister" means "half sister." And "public official" means "president." And "may not" means "may not."

Here is a poster you can download from the government itself, from the website of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Right there at the bottom of the first column under "federal employees may not" it says simply "engage in nepotism."

At first blush then, the appointment of Maya Soetoro-Ng to this commission--unlike the many appointments to it of cozy friends of the Obamas, which are merely unethical and disturbingly Chicagoan--is actually, truly, to the letter of the law, illegal.

This isn't Daley Machine Chicago, Mr. President. It's the sacred seat of the government of the United States of America. Its rules are found in the Constitution, not made and re-made in the smoke-filled back rooms of Chicago or Springfield.

I'm not a lawyer. I could be missing something. I don't know if there's any actual sanction for violating this law. I just know it's a law, and the President swore an oath to uphold the law of the United States of America.

So, Mr. President, what say you?

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