It's no secret that big energy companies find lots of ways to influence the debate in Washington: they make campaign contributions, they hire high-powered lobbyists and they invest heavily in advertising campaigns to persuade the public (and capital decision makers) that they are good "corporate citizens."
So it was not exactly a surprise when full-page newspaper ads began running recently in The Washington Post and other publications touting the fact that Chevron and jeansmaker Levi Strauss had won a prestigious new award for its work fighting the AIDS crisis. (NEWSWEEK is owned by The Washington Post Company.)
MAKING ENERGY. MAKING JEANS. MAKING A DIFFERENCE, read the ads under the corporate logos of Chevron and Levi's. What was surprising, however, was the name of the big prize that the two companies had just won: the Richard C. Holbrooke Award for Business Leadership.
Yes, that is indeed the same Richard Holbrooke, veteran diplomat and Democratic foreign-policy guru, who now works at the State Department and serves as President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
How exactly can the name of a high-ranking Obama official be featured in a corporate advertising campaign? And does that really square with President Obama's commitment to prevent his administration from being tainted by the slightest whiff of corporate lobbying (much less federal ethics rules that forbid government officials from using their office "for the endorsement of any product, service, or enterprise"?)
Those are the questions now being raised by a number of ethics watchdogs. In recent days, the use of Holbrooke's name in the ad campaign (which was paid for by Chevron, not the jeansmaker) has generated criticism from some public-interest groups, as well as a written protest to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"This is a huge conflict of interest," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based ethics advocacy group. "Clearly, [Holbrooke] has lent his imprimatur—as somebody in a high-level position in the government—to two corporations that have business before the government. This shows a remarkable insensitivity" to ethical concerns.
As Holbrooke—through a State Department aide—tells it, the complaints are bogus and "silly." Before joining the government, Holbrooke, besides working as the vice chairman of a giant private-equity firm, also served as the president of a nonprofit group, the Global Business Coalition, that seeks to mobilize private corporations in the fight against the global pandemics of AIDS and malaria. Chevron, a member of the coalition, last year kicked in $30 million to the cause—the most of any company—earning it the right to be honored along with Levi's at a gala Washington ceremony on June 25.
Holbrooke attended the dinner (where he was introduced by Fareed Zakaria, editor of NEWSWEEK International) and praised the anti-AIDS work of the two companies being honored. But Holbrooke didn't select the two winners of the award (which was named this year in his honor after he joined the State Department), according to the Holbrooke associate (who asked not to be identified because the issue didn't involve State Department business.)
And after checking with a State Department ethics officer, Holbrooke also did not personally hand out the awards—a point he noted to the crowd in his talk that night, according to the Holbrooke aide. "This award was about fighting AIDS, period," said the aide. Holbrooke did not comment directly to NEWSWEEK.
But what makes the award more problematic, according to the critics, is that the Chevron-sponsored ads come just as the oil company has been mounting a high-powered lobbying blitz to persuade the U.S. government (including the State Department where Holbrooke now works) to intervene in a legal matter of huge importance to the company. The matter involves a massive lawsuit in Ecuador where special court-hired experts have ruled the company may have to pay a whopping $27 billion in clean-up costs because of toxic wastes that were dumped in the Amazon rainforest decades ago.
A Chevron spokesman calls the charges "fraudulent." But to deal with the problem, company lobbyists this year have contacted officials at the National Security Council and the State Department over the issue.
The ads must be viewed in the broader context of what the company is trying to accomplish in Washington, according to Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group that last week wrote Secretary of State Clinton complaining about the Chevron ads. "It's great that they are contributing to fighting AIDS," he says. "But at the same time they're tying to avoid responsibility in Ecuador and other places by essentially buying credibility in Washington."
There is, to be sure, no evidence that Chevron has approached Holbrooke about the Ecuador issue, and our colleague Zakaria tells us he thinks the ethics flap is "absurd." "This strikes me as the usual Washington interest-group attack, which is unfair," he says.
But at least one federal ethics expert views the matter differently. "It is a general principle that we don't want any government official to lend his position in support of a private entity," says Stephen Potts, who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics between 1990 and 2000, during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Potts calls Holbrooke's involvement with the award "unwise," adding that his attendance at the dinner honoring the two companies was a "not a smart thing to do."