The Optics Are Not Good: Appearances Matter
Hunter Biden has a right to have an art show and sell his paintings. He’s not working in the Biden administration, so the questions raised about Hunter’s private dealings are different than the dealings of Donald Trump’s kids when he was President because Trump’s kids worked for the administration. Still, there are many ethical issues to consider in the Hunter Biden situation.
President Biden promised that once he had assumed the Presidency, his family members would not be engaged in business interests that present conflicts of interest. The ethical question then becomes does Hunter Biden’s private art show and selling paintings to the public create a conflict of interest for Biden given that purchasers may assume that buying the art may give them access to the White House.
Judging conflicts of interest are difficult because we don’t know what’s in the mind of the parties to a transaction that might create the basis for a conflict. That is why most ethicists like me use an “appearance” test to judge apparent and real conflicts of interests. In other words, if it would appear to a reasonable observer that a transaction may create a conflict of interest, then that transaction should not go through. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when ethical issues are involved.
The White House Position
The explanation given by those who support the sale of Hunter Biden’s artwork is that Hunter’s art shows do not create a conflict of interest because of the way buyers are chosen and the limits on information disclosed on who the buyer(s) are, and prices paid for the artwork. The problem is it has the opposite effect. The public has a right to know who purchases the artwork and what they have paid to determine whether there were any favors given to the buyers in return, or whether they are expecting something in return for the purchase. An informed public can then make their own judgment about whether the appearance of a conflict exists.
The White House seems to believe that by setting up a process where an art dealer takes control over information about the price and purchaser, everything is OK. Selling a piece of art for $75,000, the price quoted for at least five prints already sold by Hunter, is different than selling it for $7,500. Selling the art to a Washington lobbyist or someone who represents a foreign country is different than selling it to an unconnected individual far removed from the political environment of Washington, DC.
Hunter Biden's 'Bluebird and Coyote' hangs at the Georges Berges Gallery in Los Angeles, California
The arrangement made with the gallerist, George Berges, to independently set the artwork prices and keep the identities of buyers confidential, including from the president and administration officials, does not negate the fact that preferential treatment may have been given to buyers in return for something not disclosed. Moreover, there is nothing to stop the purchasers from disclosing the fact that they bought Hunter’s artwork or the price they paid for it.
The Art Show
Video and photos exclusively obtained by DailyMail.com show Biden and his gallery manager Georges Berges entertaining around 200 people at the famous Milk studios in Hollywood, including his wife Melissa and two of his daughters, 27-year-old Naomi Biden and Maisy Biden, 20. This was taken at an October 1 show in LA even before the exhibition was open to the public.
Potential buyers and celebrity guests who attended the event included World Champion boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, Moby, Garcetti and the artist behind Barack Obama's iconic Hope poster.
Former chief White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter claims Biden's attendance at the show ‘illustrates how this veil-of-secrecy idea is not happening'. He claims the White House's attempt at keeping buyers anonymous is not effective. 'It shows the deal's not going to be secret,' Painter said of the show.
The bottom line is transparency is what is needed in transactions such as Hunter Biden’s artwork: Who bought the pieces? What did they pay? What is their position (i.e., are they in government, lobbyists, etc.)? What, if anything, is their connection to the Biden White House?
Hunter Biden has a right to have an art show and sell his paintings. The ethical question raised is: Just because he has a right to do something, does that make it the right thing to do?
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on October 18, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. 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.