Donor-Ambassadors? That’s Just Politics

Published August 29, 2010

If former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is guilty of anything (besides one minor count of his 24-count indictment), it’s stupidity.

Last week, Judge James Zagel declared a mistrial on the remaining 23 counts after the jury deadlocked. The jury came closest, by a vote of 11-1, to convicting him on the one involving allegations he tried to “sell” the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. The votes were closer on the other counts, but those voting for acquittal called Blagojevich’s angling for campaign contributions in return for job appointments and other actions “just politics.”

They were right — and there’s no better proof of it than Obama himself.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Obama has rewarded campaign contributors and other supporters with appointments to 44 percent of the 185 top ambassadorial posts, more than either of his two predecessors. Under President George W. Bush, 30 percent of the ambassadorial appointees were political, and President Bill Clinton’s political appointees were a mere 28 percent.

The poster child for Obama’s political horse-trading is Louis Susman, a retired investment banker from Chicago. He was appointed to the plum job of ambassador to the United Kingdom, after raising $247,000 for the Obama campaign and an additional $300,000 for the president’s inauguration, plus previous fund-raising efforts for others.

“For 40 years, he has worked the phones tirelessly for Democrats, sucking up cash from friends and associates with such ferocity that he earned the nickname the Vacuum Cleaner or, for short, the Hoover,” Chicago magazine observed.

Other prominent Obama fund-raisers, now ambassadors, also hail from Chicago. Chicago lawyer David Jacobson was deputy to Obama’s national finance chair, Penny Pritzker, another Chicagoan. After Obama’s election, Jacobson became a special presidential assistant in the Office of Presidential Personnel and then was named ambassador to Canada.

Other new ambassadors and former donors from Chicago include television producer Charles Rivkin, now ambassador to France, who raised $800,000. Chicago attorney Fay Hartog Levin, who raised nearly $74,000, is now ambassador to the Netherlands. Philip D. Murphy, formerly of Goldman Sachs, former Democratic National Committee finance chair and donor of $1.5 million to Democrats at the national level, is now ambassador to Germany.

Other Obama donor-ambassadors:

• Washington, D.C., lawyer Howard W. Gutman, ambassador to Belgium ($500,000)

• Boston lawyer Barry White, ambassador to Norway (about $200,000)

• Boston businessman Alan Solomont, ambassador to Spain ($800,000)

• Virginia car dealer Donald S. Beyer Jr., former Virginia lieutenant governor and ambassador to Switzerland ($500,000)

• Palo Alto lawyer John Roos, ambassador to Japan ($500,000).

“The practice of rewarding donors is a remnant of the spoils system that we abolished in the civil service,” career diplomat Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, told Bloomberg News. “It is a dismal testimony to the importance of money in our electoral system.”

Even before the 2008 election, it was known that Susman was slated for the UK ambassadorship. According to Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Susman’s appointment by Obama, provided he won the election, was “an open secret.”

That’s the reason Blagojevich was indicted and tried for attempting to link political appointments to campaign contributions while Obama won’t ever be indicted for actually linking them. Blagojevich foolishly discussed them openly, even after he knew he was being investigated by the FBI.

But being stupid is not a crime.

Maureen Martin is senior fellow for legal affairs at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute.