The growing grip of corporate lawyer, Lloyd Cutler, volunteering as the in-White House counsel to President Clinton, continues to scar both the public interest and the proper separation of Clinton from commerce.
Although he is still the active founding partner of the Washington law firm bearing his name (Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering) and is still receiving compensation, Cutler is in the White House telling staff what to do, conducting meetings, and engaging in negotiations over the Whitewater affair.
He was also in charge of sifting potential nominees for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Blackmun. And presto, out came the nomination of Stephen Breyer who is a friend, fellow ideologue and stylistic clone of the older Cutler. By all accounts Cutler played the critical role in the Breyer nomination by aggressively counseling a chronically indecisive President.
Now what in the world is a corporate lawyer, who represents, for big dollars, corporate clients from the automobile, drug, chemical, mining and other industries, doing in the White House without resigning his partnership at his law firm? For the answer, we turn to Title 18 of the U.S. Code, section 202, which allows people called “special government employees” (SGEs) to serve for only 130 days without resigning their previous job and without complying with a number of conflict of interest and disclosure statutes.
This law was designed to facilitate a government agency’s use of a technical specialist, such as a scientist, for a short period on a discrete project. It was never intended to apply to top advisors to the President. Nor is there any past President who used this law for top White House positions.
It just so happens that Breyer has a view of de-regulation of corporations that Cutler favors. Cutler gave a hearty endorsement on the back cover of one of Breyer’s books on this subject.
It is almost a certainty that Breyer will be rendering decisions on health, safety and economic regulations that will affect the corporations represented by the Cutler law firm. To Clinton that was not a matter of any consequence.
Daily now Lloyd Cutler is involving himself in matters that could well benefit his business clients. Just before he joined the White House, Cutler represented, for example, the Canadian gold mining company that got Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt (who did not get the Supreme Court post), to reluctantly sell for a mere $10,000 dollars acreage on U.S. public land (your land) in Nevada that has gold deposits worth $10 billion.
Babbitt used the occasion to denounce the 1872 Mining Act that required him to endorse such massive give-aways of public property to private corporations. But the company is pleased and Cutler’s law firm made put quite well.
Clinton wanted Cutler because he has good contacts with important media figures in Washington. His soothing explanations to quiet the editors on the Whitewater affair were valued. But the President should pause and reflect about the damage he has done to the principle that “a public office is a public trust.”
Even though Cutler supported Robert Bork, pressed for Zoe Baird’s nomination and urged last year that Clinton not appoint a special prosecutor for Whitewater, he still received the nod to be counsel to the President. It illustrates how the private affairs of a President can affect his public duties.
It also illustrates that virtue is not its own reward in a Presidency that talks much to the American people about virtue. Among his many similar achievements, Lloyd Cutler in the Nineteen Seventies, representing the auto companies, worked long and hard to delay the air bag standard. Many American lives could have been saved without those years of delay.
Cutler should return to his law firm forthwith before he does more damage to the public and to Clinton’s campaign promise to “return this Capital to its people.”