Is His Son-in-Law Seeking to Trade in on the Family Name?
The latest disclosure that there may be a conflict of interest for President Joe Biden as a result of professional ties of his family members to other organizations occurred just a few days ago. The problem relates to son-in-law Howard Krein’s role as chief medical officer for an investment firm, Start-Up Health, that funds software development companies. In this case, the software company, Yosi Health, created a software to make the coronavirus vaccine process more efficient. The issue is Krein is in a position where people may want him to deliver access and information that will provide them with a competitive advantage. Will the investment firm tout Krein’s relationship with Biden to promote its product? It seems as though it already has happened.
StartUp Health has been trying to invest in companies working on products to be used in responding to the coronavirus. Software company, Yosi Health, has sought help from the investment firm to pitch its software platform. The fact that Krein is Biden’s son-in-law creates a conflict of interest for Biden because it seems to appear that both firms seek to trade-in on the Biden family name to advance their own commercial interests. The optics are not good.
StartUp Health had sought help from Yosi Health back in December to pitch their software platform to government officials. The timing makes the relationship and effort to gain access to Biden all the more suspicious.
StartUp Health has touted its Washington connections and has been leveraging its relationships to work with state and federal agencies in its effort to promote investments in software companies. In the past it has promoted Krein’s travels with Biden to promote cancer research and Biden’s speaking appearance at annual festivals. Biden has been a supporter of the investment firm Krein started with his brother, appearing at corporate conferences, and inviting the companies’ executives to the White House to meet the then-President Barack Obama.
Conflict Started Before Biden Was Elected President
All this took place before Biden was elected President. Shortly after the company was started, its founders were invited to an oval office meeting with Obama to preview their plans. The investment firm invoked White House meetings and special ties to Biden as evidence of their prominence long before he was elected. So, the conflict existed even before Biden became President.
It’s also worth noting that Krein began advising Biden on the coronavirus during his campaign. He had an unofficial role in developing pandemic response plans. The conflict first became real at that time and persisted as the appearance of a conflict became more intense when StartUp Health sought to leverage Krein’s relationship with Biden.
Those who support the relationship between Krein, his investment firm, and Biden have stated that the step needed now to counteract any conflict of interest is full transparency. This has not occurred to date. Moreover, full disclosure of a potential conflict of interest can’t cure the problem itself namely the leveraging of the relationship between Krein and Biden. Ethics is about avoiding conflicts of interest, not explaining-them-away and then pretending that all is well.
Ethical Issues for Biden
One of the reasons Biden’s actions are under a microscope is the President has said that no family members will be involved in government decisions or foreign policy. However, it’s not the involvement in decisions that causes the problem as much as influencing those decisions by virtue of the relationship between Krein and Biden. For me, the whole affair doesn’t pass the “smell test.”
What are the ethical issues for Biden? Here’s some food for thought.
- How can Biden ensure that those who seek access to the President through his son-in-law, Krein, know that such access will not be forthcoming under any circumstances.
- How can Biden make it clear that those who seek access to him will not be given special treatment?
- How can Biden ensure that seekers of access will not gain a competitive advantage because of the ties between Krein and the President?
What Should the Son-in-Law Do?
As for Krein, he needs to consider the following in deciding what his next step should be:
- Is he trying to influence policy decisions because of his relationship with Biden or cash in on his relationship with the President—knowingly or unknowingly?
- Should he continue to advise companies backed by his investment firm in their efforts to win lucrative government contracts or otherwise seek influence in the Biden administration?
- Should Krein weigh in with Biden on policy decisions that may benefit his investment firm?
- Could Krein obtain sensitive government information that may help inform investment decisions?
What Should Krein Have Done?
Krein should have resigned his position as chief medical officer of StartUp Health as soon as Biden was elected to leave no doubt there is no conflict of interest for Biden. Krein needs to take the moral high road here and avoid even the appearance of a conflict that might compromise Biden’s previously stated policy that family members will not benefit from their relationship with the President.
Biden has to ensure that family and friends’ private matters don’t merge with official government actions. Yes, he needs to be transparent and create oversight to ensure that lines are not crossed and ethics standards are upheld. The best way to do that is for Biden to create a new Cabinet-level position for someone to be an ethics advisor. The title of “Ethics Advisor to the President” is just as important to other advisory positions.
Previous Conflicts of Interest
This isn’t the first time family ties to Biden have come under scrutiny since Biden won the election. Last Sunday during the Super Bowl Biden said to CBS reporter, Norah O’Donnell, that he was proud of the new book his son, Hunter, wrote—Beautiful Things—that will be published in April. In the book, Hunter addresses his addiction, how it has affected his life, and what he has done to overcome it. Biden said, “We admire our son Hunter’s strength and courage to talk openly about his addiction so others might see themselves in his journey and find hope.”
Critics claim in making that statement, Biden was promoting the book and that is inappropriate for him to do. I have another take that I shared in an interview with the Washington Examiner. Through his comments, Biden was trying to help others suffering similar addictions. Biden did not say this in some stump speech. It was made in a conversation on CBS’s 60 Minutes, that naturally addresses some personal issues, and anyone who saw the interview could see Biden’s emotional response. I doubt his motive was to help Hunter sell books, and ethics is about intent.
The problem with those who criticized Biden’s statement is they seek to “cancel” Biden for his actions. However, we have free speech in this country and so long as influence-peddling is not involved, it should be all right for Biden to show his humane side. After all, this is one of the reasons Americans supported his election to be President.
The other family ties issue was when Biden’s brother, Frank, was featured in a newspaper ad for his Florida-based law firm, where he works, that ran the ad on Inauguration Day in the Florida-based Daily Business Review. The ad, which promoted an environment lawsuit against a group of Florida sugarcane companies with a picture of Frank, a non-attorney senior adviser for the firm, is accompanied by quotes touting his relationship with President Biden.
The law firm had a right to run the ad but the question is whether it was the right thing to do. Clearly, the contents of the ad raised conflict questions for Frank and Biden. Frank should not be promoting his family name in any way—directly or indirect. Was Frank using his brother’s Presidency to promote his own interests and those of the law firm? It doesn’t matter if he was motivated to do so. The fact is there is an appearance that the law firm timed the ad to promote their self-interests and used their relationship with Frank, and his access to the President, to advance a cause.
The Bottom Line
Ethics issues can get sticky and that’s why an ethics advisor to the President is needed. A President needs someone to question all proposed actions and decisions from an ethics angle: What’s right and what’s wrong? What’s good and what’s bad for the public?
Finally, all proposed decisions should be made only after asking: How would Biden and the administration feel if the decision hit the front pages of tomorrow’s newspaper? Would they feel comfortable in defending it?
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 10, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.