Mary Jo White's financial interests and client roster are so full of ethical landmines there was no way I could spotlight them all in a single column. Here's another example.
White, the white-collar defense lawyer who is President Barack Obama's nominee to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has disclosed her client list. It has a curious footnote: "Three clients are not listed where disclosure of the representation is the subject of attorney-client privilege and other confidentiality obligations that do not permit disclosure without consent or waiver by the client."
I asked a White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, if White had asked the three unnamed clients for permission to have their names disclosed. Schultz declined to answer the question. White declined to comment.
It's understandable that the clients might not want to be named. If I ever came under government investigation and hired a lawyer to advise me, I probably wouldn't want my lawyer to tell anyone else about it. At the same time, the lack of disclosure by White raises a question about whether some government ethics rules are even enforceable
For instance: If disclosure of the three clients' names would violate attorney-client privilege, how is White allowed to divulge their names to anyone? Such as, say, the government-ethics officers charged with vetting and monitoring her? If she's not allowed, how are they supposed to do their jobs and ensure her compliance with the law?
The least White can do is say whether she asked the three mystery clients for permission to reveal their names. Attorney-client privilege is, and should be, sacred. Yet so is the public trust. There are certain things the public should be entitled to know -- like an explanation of how this arrangement is going to work in practice.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
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