Rendell’s problem: when you take money for it, it ain’t the same

    By now you’ve probably seen the curious story of the U.S. Treasury Department issuing a subpoena for Ed Rendell’s speaking fees for appearing on behalf of an obscure Iranian opposition group with a history of militance and a base in Iran. If not, read Jennifer Lin’s story in Tuesday’s Inquirer.

    The State Department lists the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK as a terrorist group. If you want a chilling portrait of their camp in Iraq, check out this account by Elizabeth Rubin in the New York Times. If you want the other side, shared by many prominent (and paid) friends including Rudy Giuliani and Tom Ridge, here’s an analysis done for the heavy-hitting Washington law firm Akin Gump.

    What are we to make of Rendell’s paid advocacy? He declined to speak with me, citing the treasury investigation. But that didn’t prevent him from speaking with the New York Times, where he said, among other things, “I would never sacrifice my reputation for any amount of money.”

    I’m sure he believes that, but let me tell you a story that taught me how money affects your opinions.

    A few years back, a guy and his family moved into the twin home adjacent to mine in Germantown. Within a year, the guy was on crack. He beat his wife, stole her money, sold his kids toys, eventually drove his family away. That began a three-year nightmare in which he was sometimes there, sometimes gone while the house was inhabited by lowlifes he’d let in. There were roaches, pit bulls, stuff stolen from our yard, and eventually break-ins.

    Though he ran the property into the ground and ignored his mortgage, taxes, water bills and L&I violations, the city did nothing to get him out. This is such a common Philadelphia experience that it wasn’t even worth writing about.

    When he finally left, the house was uninhabitable — no heat or working bathrooms, a hole in the roof. A couple was willing to buy the place and fix it up, but couldn’t get a mortgage, so a neighbor and I put together a partnership with six other people from the block. Everybody put up between five and twenty thousand dollars to loan the couple. I was the managing partner of this enterprise, and it was scary to feel responsible for these borrowed dollars.

    It worked out. In 18 months the place was fixed up, and my neighbors were repaid.

    But I remember how their willingness to put their checks in my hands affected the way I thought of each of them. They were good and wise people, salt of the earth.

    And I realized at some point – this must be what it feels if you’re a political candidate and someone invests four and five-figure contributions in your campaign. It’s not just that you appreciate the effort. You see them as good people.

    So I don’t doubt that Rendell believes in the plight of the MEK, that he sees their cause as an important humanitarian issue. But it’s much easier to believe when they’ve had the good judgment to hand him some nice checks.

    And when he says he wouldn’t sacrifice his reputation for money, he should remember how many sleazy politicians he’s known who’ve said they’d never sell their office for money, or a trip, or whatever.

    I spoke to Eric Dezenhall, a Washington-based communications consultant, and he said he’s seen this before. Former public officials feel they didn’t make enough money when they were in the government, so when they leave they want to cash in. They see speaking fees as a great way to rack up some bucks and keep their reputations pure.

    “But you have to really think about the issues you want to associate yourself with,” Dezenhall said “The minute you start accepting big money, whether it’s giving speeches or lobbying, you lose that sense that you’re doing something noble.”

    When he left office, Rendell could have become a lobbyist, but he wanted to be an independent media commentator. He’s good at that, and good at public speaking.

    If he wants to keep his reputation, he’d be smart to take fees for speaking at hardware owners’ conventions, and do his advocacy for free.

    All that said, it is curious that so far it seems Rendell is the only official whose speaking fees have drawn a Treasury Department subpoena. You got a theory on that?

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