Citing Geithner's Tax Error, Critics Say Obama's Ethics Standards Are Flexible

Critics question why Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is in office despite having the type of tax problems that felled other nominees.
Critics question why Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is in office despite having the type of tax problems that felled other nominees. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 5, 2009

As he insists that ethical standards should be the same for both the powerful and the people, critics say that President Obama is looking the other way when it comes to his Treasury secretary.

Timothy F. Geithner, like former senator and Cabinet nominee Thomas A. Daschle, failed to pay his taxes. Both men settled their debts, some after being tapped by Obama. Both operate in an elite sphere of financial and political influence.

But as Daschle heads back to a life as a private citizen, Geithner sits in his office at the Treasury Department, leading the nation's effort to avoid an economic collapse.

"I don't want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks who are working every day and paying their taxes," Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday.

Obama made that statement after Daschle's decision to withdraw from consideration as secretary of health and human services because of his failure to pay more than $128,000 in taxes, most notably on the use of a limousine and personal chauffeur.

But the president and his White House continue to stand behind their Treasury secretary, who was confirmed despite his own $43,000 tax-mistake scandal.

"I think everybody makes mistakes," Obama told ABC News on Tuesday. "Tim owned up to them. And I think I've been very clear of the fact that this was a bad mistake. I don't think it was purposeful, but I think it was a mistake."

Critics of the new administration continue to press their case against Geithner despite his confirmation. They say his presence in the administration highlights the flexibility of Obama's ethical standards.

"It's clear the rules that applied to some nominees -- not to mention average taxpayers -- did not apply to Secretary Geithner," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "President Obama has not explained which set of rules Secretary Geithner falls into. So far, there's a bit of a disconnect between his campaign's rhetoric and his administration's record."

Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham asked on NBC's "Today" yesterday: "How is it a screw-up to have chosen Daschle, but 'a solid pick' is the words used to describe Tim Geithner?"

Politically, Daschle's situation was more difficult than Geithner's, in part because the former senator did not tell Obama's vetters about the tax problem until after his nomination was announced. Daschle was also burdened by ties to a lobbying culture that Obama had decried repeatedly on the campaign trail. The Democrat from South Dakota, while technically not a lobbyist, was employed by a firm that lobbied in Washington.

But it was the source of his tax problems -- related to his repeated use of a friend's limousine -- that heightened the perception problem among a public already angry at the wealthy and connected.

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