Biden’s State Department Nominee Is a Walking, Talking Conflict of Interest
When Trump’s second Interior secretary, David Bernhardt, was #2 at the department, he had so many conflicts of interest that he carried around a card listing all the companies he was not allowed to interact with. Bernhardt had been a corporate lobbyist, representing water utilities and domestic and foreign oil and gas companies, and then worked at the Interior Department to lease as much federal land to the fossil fuel industry as he could.
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department, Antony Blinken, may need to carry around a similar card. Blinken, the former deputy secretary of State during the Obama administration, didn’t shill for oil companies, but during his lucrative post-Obama career at WestExec Advisors, a corporate consulting firm he co-founded with other Obama alums, he has advised major corporations from a range of industries on how to work with the federal government—and land profitable contracts.
A financial disclosure that the Biden transition team surreptitiously released on New Years Eve, along with those of two other swampy nominees, reveals numerous WestExec clients that Blinken recently worked for, including multinational firms that could be impacted by the State Department’s work.
WestExec paid Blinken $1.2 million over roughly two years for his work advising clients in the defense, financial, tech, telecom, and other industries, and Blinken is set to receive hundreds of thousands more in 2020 compensation from the company. The Biden transition site’s bio of Blinken just happens to leave out any mention of his corporate consulting or WestExec Advisors.
Advising Big Multinationals
At WestExec, Blinken lent a hand to defense contracting giant Boeing; tech and internet companies Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Uber; financial firms Blackstone, Lazard, Pine Island Capital Partners, the Royal Bank of Canada, and SoftBank; and other businesses such as AT&T, media owner Discovery, drugmaker Gilead Sciences, consulting behemoth McKinsey, and Sotheby’s. Several of these companies disclosed lobbying the State Department in 2020. Gilead Sciences lobbied State on international trade issues and IP issues in multiple countries, among other things; Boeing lobbied on trade issues with Japan, the European Union, and the UK, among other matters; and Microsoft lobbied the department on immigration issues related to highly-skilled workers.
Blinken’s ethics letter includes standard language stating that he will not participate in matters involving WestExec’s clients until he receives his final payment from the firm, or matters concerning his own clients for one year after he last advised them, unless he obtains a waiver from ethics rules. As we know from the Trump administration, the White House counsel has the power to issue unlimited waivers.
Part of the State Department’s job is to help American businesses abroad. Blinken owns between $51,000 and $115,000 in Facebook stock, per the disclosure. So after having consulted for the social media monopoly and invested five or six figures in it, how might he approach, say, another foreign genocide facilitated by the company’s platform?
Blinken is also heavily invested in additional tech giants: Alphabet, which owns Google (holdings worth between $101,000 and $265,000) and Apple ($101,000 to $265,000). In addition, he has six-figure investments in Ally Financial, Amgen, Berkshire Hathaway, and Oracle, among others. Blinken’s ethics letter says he’ll divest these assets within 90 days after his confirmation as secretary of State.
According to the disclosure, Blinken held several other positions after his time in the Obama administration. Blinken was employed by the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement ($80,000 in salary), the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and media organizations ($22,000 earned from Turner Broadcasting System). He was paid $27,500 for a speech by private equity firm Berkshire Partners, and he held a board seat at French investment firms Meridiam, for which he was paid $134,000.
An Offshore Investment
Another investment stands out in Blinken’s disclosure, especially for someone nominated to lead U.S. foreign relations. Blinken owns between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of shares in a fund managed by Social Capital, formerly known as The Social+Capital Partnership, a venture capital firm founded by former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya. (After leaving Facebook, Palihapitiya has expressed his regret for helping the company “destroy the social fabric” of society.)
The fund, The Social+Capital Partnership GP III, L.P., is incorporated in the Cayman Islands and, along with its sister funds, is a major stakeholder in business communication platform Slack. Wealthy investors often use the Caymans to evade U.S. taxes. Maybe not the best look for America’s top diplomat?
Given his years in the Obama administration, Blinken had a good shot at a top appointment by the former president’s VP, but he may also have gotten an assist from his own wife. Evan Ryan, currently executive vice president at Axios, was a paid member of the Biden transition team, according to Blinken’s disclosure. As of last summer, she was helping lead the transition. Considering that she was assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in Obama’s State Department, one would assume she had influence over State Department nominations.
There is no requirement that presidents must nominate D.C. swamp creatures with long lists of potential conflicts of interest to lead major federal agencies. But Biden has welcomed several highly conflicted figures into his administration, including Blinken’s WestExec colleague and Biden’s Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haynes, who made $180,000 recently from a consulting gig at defense contractor Palantir; Treasury nominee Janet Yellen, who made over $7 million by giving speeches to big financial companies; and Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a retired general and board member of Defense contractor Raytheon. Personnel is policy, and Biden has made his approach to corporate conflicts and the revolving door quite clear.
Alex Kotch is an investigative journalist at the Center for Media and Democracy and the co-founder of the forthcoming nonprofit news app for exclusively independent media, OptOut.
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