By David M. Halbfinger Published: December 23, 2008
If she were applying to be, say, an undersecretary of education in Barack Obama's new administration, Caroline Kennedy would have to fill out a 63-item confidential questionnaire disclosing potentially embarrassing text messages and diary entries, the immigration status of her household staff, even copies of every résumé she used in the last 10 years.
If she were running for election to the Senate, Kennedy would have to file a 10-part, publicly available report disclosing her financial assets, credit card debts, mortgages, book deals and the sources of any payments greater than $5,000 in the last three years.
But Kennedy, who has asked Governor David Paterson to appoint her to succeed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton — and who helped oversee the vetting process for Obama's possible running mates — is declining to provide a variety of basic data, including companies she has a stake in and whether she has ever been charged with a crime.
Kennedy declined on Monday to reply to those and other questions posed by The New York Times about any potential ethical, legal and financial entanglements. Through a spokesman, she said she would not disclose that kind of information unless and until she becomes a senator.
"If Governor Paterson were to choose Caroline, she would, of course, comply with all disclosure requirements," said the spokesman, Stefan Friedman.
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Shoplifting rises in U.S. as economy dropsClinton moves to bolster role of U.S. State DepartmentImpeachment panel hears of Blagojevich fund-raisingPaterson's office said his choice for the Senate would undergo the same background check as any cabinet-level officer in Albany, including verification of employment and education, a review of tax returns, and a criminal background check by the State Police. The governor's vetting process drew criticism this fall when it surfaced that his top aide at the time, Charles O'Byrne, had failed to pay income taxes for five years. The Paterson administration has since said it is requiring more extensive background checks.
The Senate's self-imposed ethics rules do not require any disclosure by potential appointees, although sitting senators are required to file financial disclosure statements by May 15 each year. (The latest filing by Kennedy's uncle, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, showed a net worth of at least $43.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which ranked him the seventh richest senator.)
But several ethics experts, good-government advocates and scholars, who called Caroline Kennedy's situation highly unusual — because of her overt pursuit of the job, her celebrity and her lack of previous political experience — urged her to reveal information on her finances now, if only for appearances' sake.
Kennedy made headlines around the world last week after alerting the governor that she wanted the job. She then began a public tour, meeting with political leaders around the state, and quickly cemented herself as the dominant contender for the seat.
"Precisely because there is no campaign or election, she should be more willing to disclose and subject herself to a greater level of public scrutiny than is required," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonpartisan watchdog group. He noted that other major contenders for the Senate seat — officeholders like the attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, and Representative Kirsten Gillibrand — have mounted runs for office and filed public disclosures before.
Others wonder if Kennedy's unwillingness to disclose personal information suggests she lacks the stomach for the kind of intrusive questions that could come her way as a candidate in 2010.
"If this were an open primary, and all the people seeking that position had to run, she'd have to make all those disclosures, so why not in the appointment process?" said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, a watchdog group that lobbies for tighter ethics rules. "She can't simply ride in on her name recognition or place in history. The voters and people of New York deserve that full disclosure."
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, another watchdog group, warned that requiring financial disclosure by "anyone who is speculated about" for such a vacancy could be untenable. "I would think it would be up to her," he said. But he called Kennedy's campaign for the appointment "kind of unique."
So far, on her tour, Kennedy has taken just 11 questions from reporters, has granted no interviews, and responded only in writing to inquiries about her positions on significant issues.
"She needs to deepen the public's idea of who she is," said Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. "To the extent she can be more transparent, she dispels the notion that it's all about her name. We obviously know that she's quite wealthy, but beyond that, we don't know much about where she gets her income, how she's invested, whether she has followed her own principles in her investing activities, and so forth. That would be very useful to know."