The Ethics of $50,000 Monthly Advisory Roles

This impeachment season is quite a ride, isn’t it?! Donald Trump has massively crossed the line by pressuring foreign heads of state to dig up dirt on his political rivals. It’s a scandal to top the daily dose of inappropriate behavior we’ve come to expect. This one looks like it might stick.

I’m here to talk about the other corruption in the room. The 100% legal, grifting influencing kind. What did Hunter Biden actually do for Burisma Holdings in exchange for the $50,000/mo they reportedly gave him? Details are scarce. Vox tells us, “It is unclear what he did for the company. Burisma said at the time that Biden — a lawyer — would be “in charge of” a legal unit. However, Hunter contradicted this account to the New York Times in May 2019, stating, “At no time was I in charge of the company’s legal affairs.”

Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma was ostensibly “as a consultant with expertise in dealing with multinational regulations.” But it seems pretty obvious that his last name was a strong point in favor of his being hired. While that’s not illegal, it certainly doesn’t benefit our democracy. The fact that family members of prominent politicians can legally garner big paychecks based on their access puts our governing leaders at risk of influence.

In fact, Hunter has a long history of lobbying and other jobs that require influence. In the early aughts he worked as an “earmarker,” hustling to get preferential language into bills in order to benefit his clients. Apparently he ended this work when his father became vice president, stating, according to the New Yorker, “I wanted my father to have a clean slate. I didn’t want to limit him in any way.”

After earmarking, Hunter turned to more direct capital investments as a hedge fund/investment fund money guy, again, using the power of his name to open doors and close deals.

While there does seem to be an ethical guide post at play in there somewhere, I wonder if it’s set high enough. Hunter’s whole career seems to be loosely based on capitalizing on his last name.

In a piece entitled “What Hunter Biden Did Was Legal — And That’s the Problem,” Peter Schweizer points to the limitations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which prohibits U.S. firms and individuals from paying bribes to foreign officials in furtherance of a business deal. He argues that a stronger standard is required, “International bribery laws clearly state that if a person or entity pays a politician’s family member and gets favors in return, it’s an act of bribery; it’s no different from the politician taking the money himself.” While, he explains, family members of politicians need to work, “given their unparalleled access, they should also be required to be transparent about what they are doing. At a minimum, we need to strengthen American disclosure rules.”

As this controversy falls right in the middle the Democratic primary cycle, I can’t help but be struck by the differences between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren’s statements of the problem and the solution they would enact if elected president. Biden’s platform is that President Trump is the problem and once we get him out of office, things will return to the sweet prosperity and possibility of the Obama years. Warren sees the corruption and systemic inequality that allowed Donald Trump to rise and continue to be unchecked as the problem. She has a plan for that too:

But even before Trump entered the White House, our nation’s public integrity rules were far too lax. Too many public officials can easily leverage public service for personal gain. And the ability to walk around government with obvious and direct personal financial conflicts reduces public faith in honest officials. To fix this, we need a total rewrite of our ethics laws.
We must begin by rooting out financial conflicts of interest in Washington.

While her solution set to end corruption focuses on the ways public officials, not their families, currently enrich themselves, it’s a great start. I too believe the problem is bigger than Donald Trump, or he wouldn’t have gotten elected in the first place, and he wouldn’t continue to be protected. Righting this ship will require deep insight into the dark corners of our democracy where it can sometimes be uncomfortable to look. But look we must.

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