Friday, January 09, 2009

Guilt by "investigation"

Bill Richardson's guilt by association
Barack Obama should fight Republican attacks rather than let the mere whiff of scandal derail his cabinet appointments

o Ian Williams
o, Tuesday 6 January 2009 18.00 GMT

Personally, I thought New Mexico governor Bill Richardson should have been Barack Obama's secretary of state, so it is even more galling that his appointment as commerce secretary should be derailed by an investigation into an alleged pay-for-play scandal in his state.

When the owners of building site hoardings put up signs saying "Bill Stickers will be prosecuted," wags used to add the declaration "Bill Stickers is innocent!" Frankly, I would not be quite so declaratively definitive about Richardson. He is, after all, an American politician. But "Bill Richardson is innocent(ish)" I could happily put on my placard, and I still think he would be an asset to Obama's cabinet.

Being investigated, even with the investigators leaking like a drunk after two six-packs of Bud, is not the same as being guilty. Richardson himself has not been charged, or so far even implicated, in the alleged influence-peddling under his New Mexico administration. But is it Pollyannish or Casablanca-ish that everyone should be shocked, shocked that those who provide billions of dollars of campaign financing often seem to benefit from subsequent government action?

Hence my instinctive sympathies for Illinois governor Rod Blagojevic. Here he is, his official decisions threatened with overturning, facing possible impeachment, and yet how many elected politicians in the US could put their hand on their heart and without risk of their pants catching fire, declare that their decisions had been totally uninfluenced by campaign contributions? That they had never, ever, ever made a deal on voting in return for favours from their colleagues? Blagojevich was indeed indiscreet, and if he had any sense he should have realised that the FBI was tapping his telephone, but if he simply concluded his business with a wink and nudge in the country club or over a dinner table no one would have even noticed the revolving door as he or his wife took up a sinecure after appointing a senator.

Governmental policy in the US is notoriously cheap. A few hundred thousand to Bill Clinton bought a tightening of the embargo on Cuba and a trade war over bananas at the World Trade Organisation. We could allow for ideological rectitude, but does anyone really think that George Bush and the Republican party's opposition to the concept of climate change is totally unrelated to contributions from Jurassic oil like Exxon-Mobil? Having a former CEO of Halliburton in the vice-presidency would seem to have bought them lots of no-bid Iraq war contracts.

Stuart Bowen, Bush's appointee as special inspector general for Iraq, has been investigating the billions of dollars that went astray in Iraqi reconstruction contracts. No one in the administration resigned, there have been very few prosecutions and the FBI's Clouseauish response to the revelations from his reports has been to investigate him! And of course to ensure that the investigation was leaked to the media as soon as Bowen's reports pricked the bubble of the alleged success of the Iraq reconstruction effort.

Richardson has done the right thing by standing down for possible improprieties on his watch, sure to be seized upon in any confirmation hearings by a revanchist Republican party and indeed probably quietly supported by vengeful Clintonistas who have never forgiven the New Mexico governor for "defecting" to Obama at an early stage of the campaign.

Even so, it does seem worrying that all it takes to derail a competent elected official is the announcement of investigations. In a litigious society with law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and even judges elected or under direct political influence, it seems at times as if everyone is under investigation. Indeed, the FBI probably does have anyone of any political prominence under investigation in the time it can spare from sending paid informants and provocateurs to set up terrorist plots it can then forestall in a blaze of publicity. Effectively, Bernard Madoff handed himself in without a peep from the bureau.

Obama's team had better get some spine quickly and realise that bipartisanship is supposed to be a two-way affair. Otherwise there will be more investigations and allegations against his appointees from embittered Republicans and their allies in places like J Edgar Hoover's old shop. He could also return to his earlier calls about cleaning up campaign financing, since assuredly money is the root of so much evil in American politics.

But on the bright side, when he and Hillary Clinton fall out, Obama now has an immediate and competent substitute to call on.

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