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Joan Vennochi

Nominees and double standards

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / January 18, 2009
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A WOMAN with Timothy Geithner's baggage would have a tough time surviving the nomination process for US Treasury secretary.

Geithner - who, as President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the Treasury Department, would also oversee the Internal Revenue Service - failed to pay $34,000 in federal taxes ($43,200 with interest). He also employed an illegal immigrant in his home.

A list compiled by the Associated Press reveals a string of women who were forced to withdraw as candidates for top Cabinet posts because of arguably less-severe problems.

The most prominent case involved corporate lawyer Zoe Baird, President Bill Clinton's first choice for attorney general in 1993. She was forced to withdraw after it was disclosed that she employed two illegal immigrants to provide nanny services and didn't pay the required Social Security taxes for them. She couldn't enforce the law if she didn't follow it, it was argued.

Two weeks later, Kimba Wood, a federal judge in New York and Clinton's second choice for AG, also withdrew her name from consideration after admitting that her babysitter had been in the country illegally, before such hiring was against the law.

In 2001, Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator, withdrew as President George W. Bush's nominee to be labor secretary, after it was disclosed that she gave an illegal immigrant free room and board in her home.

It takes much more than that to sink a male nominee.

After his confirmation as Clinton's commerce secretary, Ron Brown acknowledged that he had not paid Social Security taxes for a woman who cleaned his house. Federico Pena, who was already confirmed as transportation secretary, acknowledged that he failed to pay Social Security taxes for a babysitter. Stephen Breyer was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice after disclosing that he failed to pay Social Security taxes for a US citizen who worked part-time in his house.

In 2004, former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik said he was withdrawing as Bush's nominee to be homeland security secretary because he hired an illegal immigrant and failed to pay employment taxes. But that was the least of Kerik's problems, as serious allegations of ethical and legal violations came to light shortly after he took his name out of consideration.

Hillary Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state appears safe. But to some degree, she is still being held accountable for her spouse in a way a male nominee would be unlikely to confront. Although she's not under any kind of investigation, Clinton is being asked to answer for hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas donations made to her husband's foundation.

Geithner's problems are his own. He failed to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes while working for the International Monetary Fund, supposedly a common processing error. He paid back taxes, plus interest, when his 2003 and 2004 tax returns were audited by the IRS, but didn't check his returns from 2001 and 2002. As it turns out, he owed money in those years, too.

It's hard to imagine most people, especially a woman - or, for that matter, a Bush nominee - retaining the "brilliant" label after those kinds of "honest mistakes," as Geithner called them.

Wishing Obama a strong start doesn't mean legitimate questions about his judgment concerning personnel must be put on permanent hold. There is solid reason for some skepticism.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico made it through the vetting process, but then was forced to withdraw as commerce secretary-designate because of a grand jury investigation.

The Obama team said there were no inappropriate contacts with Governor Rod Blagojevich or his staff regarding the disgraced governor's alleged effort to sell Obama's Senate seat to the top bidder. But all details of Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's communications concerning the seat are still not public.

Obama calls Geithner's errors "innocent" and describes him as "uniquely qualified" to fix the troubled economy.

But buying the argument that Geithner is the only man for the job requires absolute fealty to Obama - and something of a double standard when it comes to judging the country's best and brightest men and women.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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