Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Daschle Disappointment

When he left the Senate as Minority Leader in 2005, Tom Daschle was a man of modest means with a good reputation. Four years later, he is the wealthy and beleaguered Obama choice to overhaul America's health care system.

The verdict on his nomination is in doubt (the Senate has a tradition of taking care of its own), but the trajectory of his life over the past four years is deeply disturbing.

Barred by law from lobbying, Daschle went to work as a "special policy adviser" to a high-powered K Street law firm with 60 percent of its revenue from the health industry, in 2008 earning a reported $2 million.

He also took in at least $1 million a year (undisclosed details of profit-sharing may hide much more) from "long-time friend," Leo Hindery, a telecom tycoon with a history of befriending politicians, an operator whose method has been described as "buy low, pump it full of 'stardust,' and then dump it."

It was Hindery, who provided the limo and driver, services for which Daschle has now belatedly paid $140,000 in back taxes and interest.

But fellow senators such as Dick Durbin are sympathetic about this and other tax errors such as inflating charitable contributions that now plague the newly rich Daschle.

"He lost an election ending his public career," the Illinois Senator says. "His net worth was less than a million dollars at that point. And here he went out in the private sector, and now he's found himself having made a mistake and admitted to it...Now, that's the right thing to do."

Despite Daschle's promising public views on health reform (a recent book advocating a single-payer system), it will be hard to swallow his leadership after such blatant and careless enrichment from all this influence-peddling as usual, including $12,000 to $30,000 speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies and health insurers.

"Daschle is the quintessential Washington story. You leave a powerful position, and you leverage it to make a fortune," says the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a nonprofit government watchdog group.

It's not a Horatio Alger story for the new era of Change in Washington.

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