In 2012, Huma Abedin served as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while also being a paid consultant to Teneo Holdings, an advisory firm that describes itself as “focused on working exclusively with the CEOs and leaders of the world’s largest companies, institutions, and governments.” The arrangement appears to have been legal, with Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide, earning $135,000 per year as a “special government employee.” But Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has questioned the wisdom of this arrangement and its potential for creating conflicts of interest if it were widely replicated throughout government. He’s entirely right to do so.
Abedin, of course, is the spouse of embattled former US representative and current New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. Clinton is the presumed frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. So Grassley’s inquiry has been received as an attempt to conjure up a new Clinton scandal. But there’s no evidence that Grassley, the respected ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sees it that way. Rather, he’s focused appropriately on safeguarding the integrity of public service.
Among senior government officials, there’s a frequent complaint that salaries are too low to attract top talent. That’s probably true, in a strict comparison between government and private-sector opportunities for highly qualified managers. But government service is itself a valuable credential, which for many officials pays off handsomely once they leave the federal payroll. The problem with Abedin’s arrangement was that she didn’t leave the government before serving as a consultant.
From Clinton’s point of view, she wanted the help of a valued colleague who had moved to New York after having a baby and begun looking for other opportunities. They came via paid work for Clinton personally, for the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, and for Teneo Holdings, for which Bill Clinton was a paid adviser. There’s nothing inherently scandalous in this set of associations. Abedin, in response to Grassley’s inquiry, asserted that she was “not asked, nor did I provide insights about the [State] Department, my work with the secretary, or any government information.”
Nonetheless, there is obvious potential for abuse of such “special government employee” status. It’s far too easy to imagine cabinet secretaries and other senior officials using their status to leverage extra pay for their top aides, while consulting groups would be only too eager to sign up actual government employees. It’s fraught with potential conflicts and abuses.
Given the people involved, the Obama administration will probably feel pressure to insist that such arrangements are entirely appropriate, while Republicans will try to scrutinize every phone message for the slightest whiff of impropriety. But both sides would be better off simply acknowledging what’s obvious: It doesn’t make sense for officials like Abedin to remain in the government while taking consulting jobs. “Special” status may apply to consultants with truly unique skills that the government cannot secure any other way; but using it for personal aides and favored advisers is simply too much a threat to government integrity.