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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Could Gutman’s Troubles End the Absurd Practice of Selling Ambassadorships?

Nasty allegations against Howard Gutman, ambassador to Belgium and a wealthy bundler for Obama, make a good case to stop giving appointments to big donors. We’ll see if anything changes.

Howard Gutman
Photo: U.S. Department of State

I first wrote about the preposterous custom of giving ambassadorships to bundlers in 2009 when Barack Obama appointed Chicagoan Louis Susman (aka “The Hoover,” in recognition of his ability to suck up campaign donations) to the most prestigious of all embassies (the Court of St. James in London).  Susman has since retired; presumably when Obama comes up for air he’ll appoint a replacement there—the position is now listed as “vacant”—and in Paris (where the bundler ambassador remains), and probably also in Brussels.

My Susman profile included a sidebar titled “Winners Row” that listed other bundlers who got plum embassies in exchange for stuffing the candidate’s coffers.

President Obama is merely following a tradition across many administrations of rewarding his money men and women with jobs as ambassadors in glamorous foreign capitals. The numbers of political ambassadors has remained at roughly 30 percent; the rest filled by career foreign service people; those who typically devote a lifetime to training, language immersion, and climbing the state department ladder until they reach the rank of ambassador.

For career types, making ambassador means being posted to tough countries such as Yemen or Iraq or Libya. Chris Stevens, the late U.S. ambassador to Libya who died in a terrorist attack on the consulate outpost in Benghazi, was a career ambassador. 

I’m revisiting the subject because of the salacious news stories about one of the bundlers, Washington attorney Howard Gutman (who bundled $500,000 for Obama) and who appeared in my “Winners Row.” Gutman’s fundraising prowess was paid back with the plum position as ambassador to Belgium, particularly important because Brussels houses NATO and the European Union.

I preface this all with a loud warning/caveat that the allegations against Gutman—which include soliciting prostitutes in a public park adjoining the embassy and pedophilia, allegedly seeking sex with minors—are just that: unproven, and Gutman has vehemently denied them.

CBS News, ABC News, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other news organizations have dug into the details. The reader might respond that it’s none of anyone’s business but Gutman’s and his wife’s—she’s a Brooklyn-bred dentist to whom he has been married since 1981 who lives with him in Brussels. If he wants to solicit sex with prostitutes (the minors are another matter) that’s his business. Right?  Not really. Anyone in the foreign service knows the risk of blackmail and pressure from foreign intelligence operatives.

Gutman could be forced to resign or he could leave as a matter of course at the end of the first term (in most administrations bundlers are relieved of their high-status jobs, the real work in these cases done by their foreign service-trained deputies, aka chargé d’affaires), so that the President can win favor with a second set of bundlers who might covet everything about the job, including the lifelong title. While Barack Obama will never need money to run another campaign, he will need money to build his library and museum and to properly roll out his legacy.

Who is Howard Gutman? What are the allegations? How has Gutman responded?

A New Yorker born in the Bronx, Gutman, 56, is a Harvard Law graduate, a former clerk to Justice Potter Stewart, a special assistant to former FBI director William Webster, a close friend of former Virginia governor Mark Warner, and a partner at Williams and Connolly, where he made $1.8 million in 2008 before giving that up for a relative pittance of a diplomat’s salary (around $150,000). He was definitely a power player in Washington legal circles. 

A card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, Gutman also flirted with acting. The Washingtonian’s Garrett Graff  reported that Gutman was a consultant to George Clooney’s HBO series K Street and played the role of a butcher/father in Fame and Tim Robbins’s lawyer in Noise

According to the Mail Online, Gutman was “adored by Belgians, who dubbed him in 2011 `the Ambassador who makes us love America again.’”

The ugly allegations against him were detailed in a late 2012 secret  memo, obtained first by CBS News’ John Miller,  and amplified by the New York Post, the first to name Gutman:

The agent… determined that the ambassador routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children. The ambassador’s protective detail and the embassy’s surveillance detection team (staffed by host country nationals) were well aware of the behavior….

Sourced to the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General, the memo reflects charges made by a whistleblower, Aurelia Fedenisn, a retired State Department IG senior investigator. Fedenisn’s allegations are as much about an alleged coverup by high-ranking officials of investigations involving several state department employees—there are eight investigations total—as they are about Gutman. Patrick Kennedy (no relation to the former congressman and son of Ted Kennedy), an Under-Secretary of State for Management, is alleged to have derailed the Gutman investigation. Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and long-time aide Cheryl Mills is alleged to have to derailed another of of the investigations.  Both deny they did anything of the sort.

CBS News has reported that Kennedy called Gutman to Washington where he was interviewed separately “by a criminal investigator…. And that there was no finding of criminal behavior or improper behavior and that he was counseled and sent back…” He remains in his post today.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the allegations “preposterous” and added, “All cases mentioned in the CBS report were thoroughly investigated or under investigation.”

The Associated Press has reported that “outside law enforcement experts” are currently reviewing “how complaints of serious misconduct or crimes against American diplomats are investigated.” 

So are members of the House and Senate who plan to hold committee hearings.

Gutman, who has not been charged with any crime, responded last Tuesday that he was “…angered and saddened by the baseless allegations that have appeared in the press and to watch the four years I have proudly served in Belgium smeared is devastating. I live on a beautiful park in Brussels that you walk through to get to many locations and at no point have I ever engaged in any improper activity.” 

These allegations are not the first controversy to dog Gutman’s ambassadorial career. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Gutman was blasted in 2011 by some in the press and by many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry, who called for his resignation after a speech he made in Brussels. Gutman argued that there were two kinds of anti-Semitism, distinguishing Muslim anti-Semitism (abetted by the Arab-Israeli conflict), from traditional anti-Semitism. Some interpreted Gutman’s remarks as blaming Israel for anti-Semitism.

If the controversy continues, it could hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes, especially coupled with the Benghazi tragedy. One of the investigations alleges that members of her security detail solicited prostitutes while traveling with Clinton in Russia and Colombia, conducting their assignations in the same hotels in which Clinton stayed. Clinton reportedly was “unaware of the investigations….”

Wouldn’t it be great if presidential candidates in 2016 pledged to stop the practice of, in essence, selling ambassadorships? Given that she has served as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton would be the perfect person to take a stand against a widely reviled practice. Here’s guessing she won’t because even if she were so inclined, her competitors would not agree to give up such a lucrative source of dollars it takes to run a campaign.

One more “fun fact” about Gutman: When he was still a lawyer in Washington, he was, according to the Washingtonian’s Graff, “developing a reality TV show.” Weirdly enough, the show “focuses on the State Department’s security team in Haiti.”

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