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Family ties have troubled many national politicians

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, with his son

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, with his son Hunter at the Duke-Georgetown NCAA college basketball game in Washington, D.C., in 2010.   Credit: AP/Nick Wass

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden isn’t the only national politician who has been accused of having a conflict of interest involving a family member. He joins a long list that includes some of the nation’s earliest leaders and President Donald Trump.

It is a thorny problem, lawyers and experts specializing in government ethics said, as family members find ways to cash in on their ties to politicians’ prominence and power despite attempts to curb that exploitation with laws and federal personnel restrictions.

“The undue influence peddling is a difficult one to try to address through public policy,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the liberal public policy group Public Citizen. For example, he said, “You can’t really make it illegal for a son to take a private sector job somewhere.”

Over the past 50 years, family scandals, many involving siblings, have erupted on presidents, prompting public outcry, investigations and eventually new laws.

President Richard Nixon’s brothers Edward and Donald took loans that led to questions of political influence and misuse of campaign contributions. The Senate probed President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy for visiting Libya, registering as its agent and getting a loan.

President Bill Clinton’s brother-in-law Hugh Rodham charged clients seeking clemency during Clinton’s flood of pardons as he left office, spawning a scalding House panel report and a federal probe into influence peddling that resulted in no indictments.

And Neil Bush, a brother of President George W. Bush, prompted questions about the propriety of starting an education business that won contracts paid for by No Child Behind Left Act federal grants.

Congress has tried over the past six decades to address public officials’ family entanglements.

It barred public officials from hiring relatives in an early bid to curb family members from benefiting from office holders' positions. It enacted financial disclosure and foreign agent registration requirements to expose conflicting connections in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

It created a law banning federal employees from influencing any government matter to affect their and their spouse and minor children’s financial interests in 2006.

But no laws address the latest iteration — adult children of public officials cashing in through foreign companies or governments.

That’s what Democratic presidential candidate Biden’s son Hunter did. He took a lucrative position as a board member of a Ukrainian gas company in 2014, when his father as vice president became the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine and its corruption problem.

Biden did not discourage his son from taking the job. He said he never talked to his son about the potential conflict. Hunter Biden, who quit the board this year, told The New Yorker magazine they did speak once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’”

The younger Biden admitted in an ABC News interview he made a mistake taking the Ukraine and China posts but denied it was based on some “ethical lapse.” And he acknowledged his father’s shadow had affected him. “I don’t think there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden.”

Hunter Biden also stepped down from a Chinese-backed venture capital firm set up in 2013 as he joined his father on Air Force 2 for a visit to China.

So far, no evidence has emerged to prove Trump’s accusations that Biden threatened to withhold a U.S. loan guarantee from Ukraine to force the firing of a prosecutor who had probed the gas company to help his son rather than as part of an international anti-corruption campaign.

“I don’t really believe there was any type of quid pro quo or any type of influence peddling going on there,” said Holman. “However, it certainly has the appearance of — you know, it looks bad.”

Biden last week said he has no regrets about Hunter. But he pledged if he becomes president: "No one in my family ... will in fact have any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or a foreign country."

Trump, who has repeatedly lambasted Joe Biden for his son’s activities, faces complaints and criticism over his own children.

His daughter Ivanka, who serves as his unpaid White House adviser, has won 39 potentially lucrative trademarks she applied for in 2016 from Chinese officials in the past two years as Trump has engaged in high-stakes trade negotiations with China.

And Trump, who is facing an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats over urging Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, also has boosted his own businesses, which he turned over to his sons to run while he serves as president.

“In the end, they can’t necessarily control their adult children, and that’s also a part of the problem — although they could publicly call them on it,” said longtime government ethics advocate Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit Democracy 21.

That’s what Carter did when he issued a statement that pointedly said his brother Billy had no influence over U.S. policy toward Libya or the Middle East and that as president he would treat him as a paid advocate for Libya.

Lawmakers could draw brighter legal and ethical lines, lawyers and advocates said.

Meredith McGehee, executive director of the advocacy group Issue One, said Congress could adopt stronger rules and limits on use of inside information and the president could set the tone for all public officials by issuing a tougher presidential executive order on ethics.

Peter Schweizer, whose book about politicians’ family conflicts fuels Trumps’ attacks on the Bidens, proposed in a recent New York Times Op-Ed that Congress pass a law to bar a foreign company or government from hiring the family members of American politicians.

Holman said he would borrow from the law that restricts lobbying of members of Congress by members of their family and make it a violation of a conflict of interest code for any immediate family member to try to influence public policy with a public official, including the president.

“There’s only so much you can do,” said Wertheimer, who acknowledged difficulties in codifying legal or ethical restraints.

“What about common-sense ethics?” he said.

“Both the office holder and the relative have an obligation to the American people not to create the appearance that the office holder’s office is being used for the personal financial gain of the relative,” he said, “because that simply undermines public confidence in the office holder and the whole system.”

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