John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Conflicting Interests

Posted on February 21, 2013
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The New York Times ran a story about a staff hire in Senator Reid’s office.  It was your typical cynical report about the “revolving door,” in the world of politics.  Here is an excerpt:
“Take what happened late last month as Washington geared up for more fights about the taxing, spending and the deficit. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, decided to bolster his staff’s expertise on taxes.

So on Jan. 25, Mr. Reid’s office announced that he had appointed Cathy Koch as chief adviser to the majority leader for tax and economic policy. The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. “Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,” the release says, “Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.”

“It’s funny, though. The notice left something out. Because immediately before joining Mr. Reid’s office, Ms. Koch wasn’t in government. She was working for a large corporation.

“Not just any corporation, but quite possibly the most influential company in America, and one that arguably stands to lose the most if there were any serious tax reform that closed corporate loopholes. Ms. Koch arrives at the senator’s office by way of General Electric.

“Yes, General Electric, the company that paid almost no taxes in 2010. Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of G.E. — and, by extension, any big corporation.”

By and large, stories like this annoy me.   Members of the Congress do not hire staff members to shill for corporate America.  They hire staff members who can do the job, and by all accounts, Cathy Koch is a pretty smart tax lawyer.  She knows where the bodies are buried.

What caught my interest was that the New York Times story was written not by a New York Times reporter, but by an outside organization called Pro-Publica.

Who is Pro-Publica and what is their agenda?  It’s a good question, and frankly I don’t know the answer.  I do know that Pro-Publica was started by a guy named Herb Sandler.  And I know that Sandler made his money selling his mortgage business (a business that specialized in funky mortgages with adjustable rates), right before the whole housing business collapsed, and that the housing market collapsed chiefly because a lot of people had funky mortgages, like the ones sold by Herb Sandler, that they found that they couldn’t pay back.

Maybe Pro-Publica, founded by the funky mortgage king, is a perfectly fine organization.  After all, it won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, which would be impressive, unless of course, you found out that  some of the same people who sit on the Board of Pro-Publica, also sit on the Pulitzer Board.

But, of course, when they announce who wins the Pulitzers, they don’t necessarily announce who is on the Board and how that whole process actually works.  I am sure it is a complicated and boring process and I am sure it all above board.   I am pretty sure, at least.

I will say this.  When publishing a story about conflicts of interest, it sure would be nice if the newspaper that is publishing that story would not gloss over the fact that the story itself was written by an organization that has its own transparency issues.