Columns » John Brummett

Asa makes a living

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Cashing in is one thing. Mack McLarty sold his service as a muckety-muck in the Clinton White House, venturing into the international corporate consulting business with, of all people, Henry Kissinger. Rodney Slater sold his experience as Clinton’s secretary of transportation.

Asa Hutchinson is as entitled as the next guy to cash in his federal government work, the most marketable of which was as deputy secretary of homeland security for the Bush administration.

If it’s government you know, and if someone wants what you know and will pay for it, then we would seem to have ourselves a bona fide capitalistic circumstance.

Maybe what the guy paying you really wants is the perceived credibility that he thinks he can acquire by purchasing your name. That’s a tad on the unseemly side. But we’re all out there in the marketplace trading stuff, and some of it comes with smoke and mirrors.

My problem with Hutchinson is that he cashes in his federal government detail at the same time he offers himself to be the next governor of Arkansas. While he runs for governor, Asa keeps about a half-dozen ventures afoot by which he seeks to profit from his federal experience.

Cashing in works best with a clean break. Otherwise, a guy could pull an ethical muscle.

Let’s take just one of these ventures, for simplicity’s sake.

There’s this really tall guy named Tom McMillen. He played college basketball for Maryland, then played in the pros. He also was a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also an idea man.

In the 1990s he cooked up the Complete Wellness Centers and got investors to turn over $6 million to him. These centers got into a fight with federal health regulators. Then he sued his company. Then the company went bankrupt.

McMillen’s latest interest is profiting on security in the terrorism era. He started this thing — and “thing” is the best way to describe it — called Fortress America. He persuaded people to send him $42 million on the mere prospect that he’d find a way to use the money to buy a company or companies in this developing securities field.

To help him convince people to send their money, he got Asa to buy a little stock and join his advisory board.

Asa’s role is to let McMillen use his name, maybe actually advise on what to buy, and wait to see if his ship comes in.

It is possible that McMillen could wind up trying to sell some service or gadgetry to a state government needing to be state-of-the-art in its defense of citizens and led by a governor named Asa with a special relationship with the company.

Asa walks around with three or four other potential conflicts much like that one. He has signed on with an outfit that claims it has a pill that you could take after you got radiated or anthraxed. There’s another with a camera that can look inside your bag.

Hutchinson explained to me Wednesday that a man has to make a living while seeking office. He also drew this interesting distinction: Conflicts will arise only if he actually is elected governor, and I should rest assured he will do whatever is necessary to avoid those conflicts at that time.

I had been thinking of a broader definition of conflict, one by which a governor could steer official business to a firm he might only recently have left and for which he might have an affinity because it had helped make him a living, perhaps even rich.

We could always simply trust Asa, as this headline I ran across the other day seemed to recommend: “Hutchinson: Integrity the key to avoiding corruption.” Getting rain is the key to avoiding drought, too.

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