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Keeping Wall Street Speeches Secret Speaks Volumes About Hillary Clinton

By Bill Blum
2
Bill Blum
Contributor
Bill Blum is a former judge and death penalty defense attorney. He is the author of three legal thrillers published by Penguin/Putnam ("Prejudicial Error," "The Last Appeal" and "The Face of Justice") and is a…
Bill Blum

Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

It’s been roughly three months since Hillary Clinton promised, during her Feb. 4 debate with Bernie Sanders on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, to “look into” releasing the transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street investment houses.

If you’re a stickler for details and would like to know precisely how long Clinton has delayed on fulfilling her pledge or exactly how much cash she has raked in for her speaking gigs and from whom, you don’t have to spend hours scouring the Internet. You can simply log onto two sites created by a 40-year-old Sanders supporter and web developer named Jed McChesney of Olathe, Kan.

The first site— iwilllookintoit.com—is a computerized digital clock that ticks off the elapsed time in bold red print, listing the number of days, hours and seconds. The other offers a searchable chart, published at citizenuprising.com, of 91 paid, private talks given by the Democratic front-runner from April 2013 to March 2015.

All told, according to McChesney’s meticulous research, Clinton pulled in a whopping $21.7 million in speaking fees for the two-year period. Of this amount, $3,260,000 came from 14 speeches delivered directly to financial-sector interests, including Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, and, above all, Goldman, which remitted a tidy $675,000 for no less than three chin-wags.

“I was watching the debate … when she said she would look into [releasing the speeches],” McChesney told me in an interview I conducted with him last week via email, as his phone was down as a result of a north Kansas thunderstorm. “I just knew it was a complete blow-off answer.

“I find it to be completely disqualifying,” he continued, regarding Clinton’s presidential bid. “It says a lot about our system when such brazen bribery is wholly accepted. So about … an hour or so after the debate, it just hit me to start a clock to hold her accountable.”

In terms of web traffic, the venture was an immediate success. On Feb. 19, after the Sanders campaign got wind of McChesney’s clock and tweeted out the URL to some 1.5 million followers, the website was featured on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Within 20 minutes, the site drew 160,000 visitors, causing it to crash and forcing McChesney to switch to a larger server. Since then, he estimates, the page views have numbered in the millions.

Holding Clinton accountable, however, has proven elusive. Like countless rank-and-file Bernie backers across the country, McChesney is irate and disappointed—but by no means surprised—that she continues to keep a lid on her talks. “This wouldn’t be acceptable behavior in a banana republic,” he wrote me, “and the fact that the media and Democrats turn a blind eye is astounding.”

It may indeed be too late for accountability or, for that matter, to derail Clinton’s march to the Democratic nomination. But it’s never too late to tell the truth. The fact is that instead of producing the transcripts, Clinton and her surrogates have unleashed a cascade of excuses, obfuscations, false equivalents and evasions to justify her intransigence.

I lack McChesney’s computer and math skills, but I know how to spot slipshod arguments when I see them. To date, the Clinton camp has failed to put forward a single convincing defense of its refusal to release the Wall Street speeches, much less of the wisdom of delivering the speeches in the first place. And as the minutes and seconds on McChesney’s clock continue to tick away, the defenses have only grown more dubious.

Among the first excuses was one floated not by Clinton herself but by reporter Rachel Stockman, the daughter of Reagan-era budget director David Stockman. In a post published on the New York website LawNewz.com just one week after Clinton made her look-into-it pledge, Stockman quoted financial “industry insiders” who said that high-profile corporate speakers like Clinton are often barred from revealing the content of their speeches by nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements.

If accurate, the nondisclosure defense would mean “game over” for anyone seeking transparency from Clinton. Trouble is, Clinton has never voiced support for the defense, and for good reason: It isn’t viable.

Even before Clinton uttered her look-into-it promise, word had leaked that her standard speaking appearance contracts, negotiated by the prestigious Harry Walker Agency, include provisions that prohibit all press coverage of her talks, as well as audio- or videotaping. However, other typical provisions, some of which were reproduced in a Feb. 7 BuzzFeed article, require that stenographic transcripts be made and that Clinton be accorded sole ownership and control of the transcripts. The decision to release the speeches apparently is hers and hers alone.

Much the same can be said of the presumptive Democratic nominee’s initial claim, made in a televised February town hall moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, that in 2013, when she began her speaking tour after resigning as secretary of state, she “didn’t know” she would be running for president in 2016. Because she had no firm ambitions for high office, she told Cooper, she saw no conflicts in accepting whatever Goldman and the other firms offered to pay her.

While it’s true that Clinton did not formally announce her candidacy until April 2015—after the long line of engagements chronicled by McChesney had ended—she had been publicly mulling a second presidential run as long as two years earlier.

As a Yale-educated lawyer, a skilled litigator and polished politician, surely she knew that her Wall Street confabs would at a minimum create the appearance of impropriety if she once again threw her hat in the ring. Any contention to the contrary is the stuff of “Saturday Night Live” comedy that can’t pass the straight-face test.

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