A while back, commenting on a story involving a CBC reporter, I had occasion to say something about conflict of interest. Here is how my post began
Why is the concept of conflict of interest so hard to understand? True, like any misdemeanour that has certain penalties attached to it, there is some room for debate when assessing culpability. But the thing is, we know it when we see it. And it’s precisely because we know it when we see it that we can say when it exists.
I say “exists” because conflict of interest is not a specific action or event. It doesn’t “occur.” One doesn’t have to actually do anything at all. Conflict of interest is a state of being. You are in a position where there is a conflict of interest or you are not.
I couldn’t help but think of this while watching the cotton-candy accrual of controversy surrounding presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and the State Department’s relation to the family’s Clinton Foundation. The same issue is again front and center. While acknowledging an unseemly “appearance of impropriety,” Clinton’s defenders point to the fact that there has been no finding of criminality (and that through no lack of investigation). Indeed, Clinton herself has said — in her defence! — that “I know there’s a lot of smoke and there’s no fire.”
Again I am wondering why the nature of the problem is so hard to understand, or if Clinton is being deliberately obtuse. The smoke is the smoking gun. Charles Krauthammer’s column (and this is a commentator I rarely find myself in agreement with), puts it this way
The Associated Press found that more than half the private interests who were granted phone or personal contact with secretary Clinton — 85 of 154 — were donors to the foundation. Total contributions? As much as $156 million.
Current Clinton response? There was no quid pro quo.
What a long way we’ve come. This is the very last line of defence. Yes, it’s obvious that access and influence were sold. But no one has demonstrated definitively that the donors received something tangible of value — a pipeline, a permit, a waiver, a favourable regulatory ruling — in exchange.
It’s hard to believe the Clinton folks would be stupid enough to commit something so blatant to writing. Nonetheless, there might be an email allusion to some such conversation. With thousands more emails to come, who knows what lies beneath.
On the face of it, it’s rather odd that a visible quid pro quo is the bright line for malfeasance. Anything short of that — the country is awash with political money that buys access — is deemed acceptable. As Donald Trump says of his own donation-giving days, “when I need something from them . . . I call them, they are there for me.” This is considered routine and unremarkable.
It’s not until a Rolex shows up on your wrist that you get indicted. Or you are found to have dangled a Senate appointment for cash. Then, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, you go to jail. (He got 14 years.)
Yet we are hardly bothered by the routine practice of presidents rewarding big donors with cushy ambassadorships, appointments to portentous boards or invitations to state dinners.
The bright line seems to be outright bribery. Anything short of that is considered — not just for the Clintons, for everyone — acceptable corruption.
It’s a sorry standard. And right now it is Hillary Clinton’s saving grace.
As I said in my earlier post, conflict of interest isn’t an act, it’s a position one finds oneself in. And it is all a matter of perception: perceived conflict of interest (by an objective observer) is conflict of interest. To argue over “exact allegations” of improper behaviour is changing the subject. That may sound harsh, but the reason for having such a hard rule is simple: because in most cases proving any wrongdoing is impossible. The accused can simply respond with a blank denial and that’s the end of it. Short of concrete evidence of “outright bribery” anything goes. And outright bribery isn’t the way corruption works, except at the very lowest level.
Look, everyone in a position of power sells access. When you buy access you get something in return, as the worst-presidential-candidate-in-history Donald Trump testifies. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about how the system works, which means this is just another one of those things that everybody takes for granted but that can never be admitted publicly. The only danger is in assuming that people are too stupid not to know what’s going on.