“Running a presidential campaign is good for business.” Mark Penn, Hillary’s chief campaign strategist and CEO of mega public relations/lobbying firm Burson Marsteller, wrote those telling words in an internal corporate blog.
Penn has good reason to believe it. His business is booming from hefty fees it's collecting from a "Who's Who" of corporate, foreign governments and special interests — many of whom oppose Hillary Clinton and many Democrats on key policy issues.
Given the breadth of his company’s special interest clients, Penn appears to be collecting from parties that are lining up early to influence the next administration, betting, as they are, that Hillary Clinton will be our next president.
The potential for a serious conflict of interest is simply staggering.
As Hillary's top campaign strategist, Penn meets and speaks constantly with both Clintons and with other key policy advisers. He is in a position to influence what the candidate supports or opposes.
But neither Penn nor Hillary Clinton seem to see any problem there — even though Penn has already shown incredibly poor judgment in this area.
During Bill Clinton’s second term, while he was the president’s chief political strategist, and with unfettered access to the president and first lady, Penn’s polling firm, Penn & Schoen, contracted to lobby the Clinton administration on behalf of Central American countries — for a half-million-dollar fee. (The firm had never registered as a lobbyist or foreign agent before.)
Burson-Marsteller ultimately bought Penn & Schoen and Penn later became the head honcho.
Today, the company is a major player in the world of corporate and political spinning, with offices all over the globe.
A short list of clients includes Countrywide Financial, the aggressive sub-prime mortgage lender, Microsoft (in its attempt to stop a merger between Google and Doubleclick), Philip Morris, Occidental Petroleum, Bristol-Meyers, Entergy (nuclear power), Lockheed Martin, Texaco, AT&T, Allergen (makers of Botox), Greece, Taiwan, Cyprus, Virginia Tech, Doha Qatar (to try to get the Olympics there), Comcast, Sony Ericsson, Ikea, the National Fisheries Institute, Visa International, and many, many others.
Indeed, Burson is everywhere!
In the past, the company has also represented the Chinese National Offshore Oil Co (CNOOC) (Burson operates over one hundred offices — including four separate offices in China), the Russian Government Press Office, Haiti, Nigeria, Armenia, and Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial president of the Iraqi National Congress who pushed for the overthrow of Saddam.
But most of the firm’s clients remain secret: Unless direct lobbying is involved, there is no disclosure requirement.
Erik Prince, the CEO of Blackwater recently hired Burson’s lobbying subsidiary, BKSH, to prep him for his congressional testimony — helping him to explain why the civilian cowboys who work for him have been involved in 195 shooting incidents.
After news reports about the controversial representation, Burson-Marsteller ran screaming from Blackwater, describing it as only a “temporary” engagement with no involvement by Penn. And the Clinton campaign affirmed its support for Penn.
Blackwater is yet another reminder of the ethical imbroglios that dogged her in the White House and raises serious questions about Penn’s dual roles as strategist for the potential next president and adviser to corporations and governments who have ongoing big business in Washington.
Penn is often compared to Karl Rove, but there’s at least one big difference: When Rove became Bush’s chief campaign strategist, he sold his consulting business. Penn refuses to even take a leave of absence.
Although he claims to have no involvement in the firm’s day-to-day business, published internal e-mails suggest otherwise. And, Penn demonstrated his blatant lack of sensitivity to conflict of interest issues during the last Clinton administration.
In October 1998, while Penn was the White House chief political strategist, he registered his polling firm, Penn & Schoen, as an agent for the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, operated, and controlled by Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua with Mexico, Taiwan, Argentina, and Colombia as additional shareholders.
In plain English, a number of foreign governments seeking to persuade the President of the United States to adopt legislation in their economic interest paid Penn to make their case in the White House.
Question: Did the President know this and permit it?
Because that’s not how Clinton used to operate. In his first term, the former president required all consultants with regular access to him or White House staff to file a financial disclosure form with the White House counsel’s office — to avoid conflicts of interest.
So, what happened to that sensible policy?
Apparently, it went out the window.
According to Penn’s hand-written filings with the Justice Department, he was the only partner working on the contract that required his firm to “lobby the [Clinton] Administration” and “encourage” it to adopt a NAFTA-like trade bill for Central America as “a primary legislative priority.”
And what is it that did Penn inside the White House to advance the foreign bank’s agenda?
He reports that in November 1999, he made two telephone calls to Maria Echaveste, the White House deputy Chief of Staff “relating to visit of member countries to the U.S.”
Not surprisingly, Penn’s lobbying skills were no longer needed once Clinton was gone. Penn’s handwriting indicates that the contract expired on January 1, 2001 – days before Clinton left office.
Now Penn is deeply immersed in the lobbying world.
Burson-Marsteller is sought out by clients who are well aware of his close relationship with the Clintons.
Take the case of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. In late March, Bill Clinton traveled to Cartagena for the 80th birthday tribute to Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where he spoke to Colombian president Alvaro Uribe about the difficulties in passing the agreement.
Eager to help, Bill called several Democratic Congressmen. And, coincidentally, within days, Burson-Marsteller and two of its subsidiaries, BKSH and Penn & Schoen, signed on to lobby for Colombia for $300,000.
Other countries come calling, too: Earlier this year, Burson-Marsteller closed a $250,000 polling and lobbying project for former Prime Minister Bhutto’s People’s Party of Pakistan, which opposes the Musharaaf government.
And in June, Burson signed on with the Abu Dubai Investment Authority for $802,250 – in Bill Clinton’s favorite Arab country, the U.A.E.
Penn is not paid anything at all by the Clinton campaign. And his compensation at Burson-Marsteller is tied to the performance of the company, which is booming.
Running a Presidential campaign may, in fact, be good for Penn’s business, but, ultimately, it won’t be good for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
Last year, Burson-Marsteller’s parent company, WPP, raked in more than $53 million in fees from its various U.S. lobbying affiliates. (It’s been gobbling up D.C. lobbying firms in the past few years.)
Edwards and Obama have severely criticized her for taking lobbyists money. It won’t help if her strategist oversees a lobbying firm.
Interestingly, when Penn contributed to Hillary’s presidential campaign, he supplied a Miami Beach, Florida address instead of his home address in D.C. He also listed his employer as Penn & Schoen- not Burson-Marsteller - where he is employed in Washington as its “Worldwide CEO.”
Can you think of a good reason for that? Could it possibly be so that anyone searching for political donations by employees of lobbying firms would skip over it and think it a different Mark Penn who lives in Florida?
Given the unmistakable merger of his corporate and political work, its time for Penn to make a choice and follow the example of Karl Rove and end either his corporate work or his political activity
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann