Two years ago, I wrote about private groups offering big speaking fees and perks to David Broder and Bob Woodward, even though both had talked in the past about the impropriety of journalistic “buckraking.” Broder, for example, said in 1996, “It’s clear that some journalists now are in a market category where the amount of money that they can make on extracurricular activities raises, in my mind, exactly, and, clearly, in the public’s mind, exactly the same kind of conflict-of-interest questions that we are constantly raising with people in public life.”
Deborah Howell, the Washington Post ombudsman at the time, wrote a column about my stories. She noted that Broder had worked at the paper for 42 years and continued as a columnist on contract after taking an early retirement buyout. Woodward had also taken a buyout but still consulted for the paper and had a token contract for $1,200 a year. Broder acknowledged that he had twice accepted fees (of up to $12,000), and that his expenses were picked up for the events, which were often held at luxury resorts. He also admitted that he had once taken a free cruise to Brazil (along with his wife) for a speaking appearance. Woodward said all his speaking fees went to a foundation he and his wife run. Much of the money his foundation donated went to help the needy children of Sidwell Friends, an elite private school attended by his children.
Howell, now deceased, concluded:
Broder should have followed his own and The Post’s rules. Woodward’s case is somewhat different, but [then executive editor Len] Downie would like to know and should know what groups Woodward is speaking to in case he wants to object. Woodward’s name and The Post’s are synonymous, and whatever Woodward does is associated with the paper, even if he’s rarely there.
Most of all, The Post needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses. It should deal with charities and those on contract. Approvals for speeches that involve fees should be sought and given in writing by a high-ranking editor. Fees should be accepted only from educational, professional or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and politics are not a major focus — with no exceptions.
So has anything changed since then? Apparently not.
Last May, Broder was the keynote speaker at a May 19 to 21 conference sponsored by GenSpring Family Offices, “a leading wealth management firm for ultra-high net worth families. With over $20 billion in assets under advisement, GenSpring…is trusted by more than 700 of the world’s wealthiest families to oversee or manage important aspects of their financial lives.” GenSpring is an affiliate of SunTrust Banks, which lobbies congress. The conference, called the “Men’s Retreat,” was held at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. The conference offered “an opportunity for men to learn and network together, attend and participate in provocative and timely meetings covering the gamut of wealth related topics presented and facilitated by key GenSpring experts as well as select guest speakers who are renowned experts in the fields of finance, communication, health, and wealth preservation.”
Each retreat offers a balanced blend of serious, thoughtful, and entertaining wealth-related and recreational activities, elegant dining, and opportunities to visit local places of interest, some of which may not normally be accessible to the general public. The men’s retreat is open exclusively to GenSpring client family members.
Broder spoke at a dinner on the conference’s first night, immediately after attendees had returned from a visit to the International Polo Club. The following day the conference offered a panel called “Uncle Sam Comes to Dinner: Washington’s Increased Presence in the Ultra High Net Worth Family,” during which the speakers analyzed “proposed and pending legislative agendas to assess how healthcare and tax reform might affect your family enterprise.”
Among the panelists was Patricia Soldano, a lobbyist who heads up GenSpring’s office in southern California and who is president of the Policy and Taxation Group, “an organization that educates on the destructive effects of the estate tax to families and their businesses.” In other words, the conference Broder spoke at was not only hosted by a business with significant interests in Washington, but the group’s lobbying agenda was a notable component of the event.
Broder writes about financial reform and tax policy with some regularity. Last July, two months after the GenSpring affair, he wrote a column in which he cited a poll by a group called Third Way which asked whether voters would prefer job creation programs that relied on new government investments or cutting taxes on business. “Cutting taxes on business won 54 percent to 32 percent,” Broder wrote. “This sounds to me like Ronald Reagan returning to whomp Barack Obama. Maybe all the Republicans have to do is to reject the Bush label and bring Reagan back for an encore.”
In September he wrote a column saying that President Obama “is now prepared to adopt business’ own favorite remedy, and subsidize private firms in hopes they will invest and hire more rapidly…This is the kind of tax reform Republicans can love, and it has now been placed on offer by a Democratic president, even before the election results are weighed.”
Woodward also continues to speak before private groups with big interests in Washington. A review of tax records shows that his foundation continues to give about half of its donations – about $230,000 during the past three years — to Sidwell Friends.
In November of 2009, he spoke to the Semiconductor Industry Association Award Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. Last month, he spoke to the Grocery Manufacturers of America at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. (Jenna Bush was another keynoter.)
I emailed Broder and Woodward for comment. Neither replied, just as they ignored requests for comment two years ago. Howell told me at the time that Broder didn’t reply because my questions about his speaking gigs “annoyed” him. That’s a strange posture for a journalist, to put it mildly.
What’s especially bizarre, though, is that the Post has allowed Broder to lie with impunity about his speaking gigs. He first told Howell that he had never spoken to groups that lobby, but admitted that he had after she pointed out that he had addressed lobbying organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and a Virginia realtors group. He also told Howell that he had “cleared his speeches” with one of two top Post editors, Milton Coleman (elected in April as president of the American Society of News Editors) or Tom Wilkinson, who no longer works for the paper, “but neither remembered him mentioning them.”
And he also denied to Howell that he had given a speech to the American Council for Capital Formation, even though that group ran an article about his speech in an internal newsletter, which included a photograph of Broder at the podium.
So are Broder and Woodward now clearing their speeches in advance? And if so, why does the Post allow them to speak to private groups that lobby? I can’t answer those questions because I emailed Coleman to ask for comment but did not get a reply from him either.