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How the “Cocaine Mitch” Saga Deflected the Spotlight on Corruption

Photo by Aaron Vowels | CC BY 2.0

The West Virginia Senate Republican Primary ended last week with Don Blankenship in third place. He would have otherwise been considered a fringe candidate, but a series of attack ads against Mitch McConnell launched him onto the national scene.

Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is no stranger to controversy. He served a year in prison for conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards. The trial was in response to an explosion that killed 29 coal miners.

Such a background would normally be a disqualifier for a career in politics. However, the negativity from Blankenship’s campaign pulled him out of obscurity. One of his ads concluded with a pledge to “ditch ‘Cocaine Mitch’ (McConnell).”

By making this vague and ambiguous claim, it resulted in widespread media coverage. The Blankenship campaign eventually responded with this statement, which mentioned a shipment of cocaine that was confiscated aboard one of the freighters owned by McConnell’s father-in-law’s company, Foremost Maritime.

He then followed up with another ad. “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people, while doing so, Mitch has gotten rich,” said Blankenship. “In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”

As with most political attack ads, there’s usually a very low bar for context. However, this campaign message managed to drag down that already-poor standard. Worst of all, in this instance, there was an opportunity to raise the bar by examining issues involving corruption, but the Blankenship campaign failed to deliver.

To be clear, the “cocaine” smear against Mitch McConnell was completely unwarranted. The Nation reported in 2014 that 90 pounds of cocaine were confiscated by Colombian authorities on one of Foremost Maritime’s ships.

There isn’t a shred of evidence connecting the Senator from Kentucky or his family with this illegal drug shipment. Most likely, some of the crew members were responsible for the drugs on board this massive vessel that has a 91,385-ton capacity. Ultimately, no one has been arrested for this offense.

On the other hand, there are several valid criticisms involving McConnell and his vast financial conflicts of interest affecting his decisions as a public official. Blankenship indirectly alluded to this with his “China people” comments, but he completely missed the mark.

These attacks were in response to the investigative work in Peter Schweizer’s book, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. The book goes into extensive detail involving several examples of difficult-to-investigate corruption, i.e. connections with family members. That included the many business ties between McConnell, his wife Elaine Chao (the current Secretary of Transportation), and his father-in-law, James Chao.

The Chinese economy is rapidly shifting towards capitalism, but it would be more accurately described as crony capitalism. The Chinese government has a heavy hand in picking and choosing the winners. These people are often connected with the Communist Party or, in some cases, have influence with foreign governments.

Hence, Schweizer pointed to the red flags involving James Chao. He and his daughter, Angela, were appointed to the board of directors of one of China’s top military contractors, Chinese State Shipbuilding Corporation Holdings. Also, Angela Chao was added to the Bank of China’s board of directors.

The Chao family’s fortune came from wealth generated by Foremost Maritime, which ships goods across the world. That includes extensive business with the aforementioned, Chinese State Shipbuilding Corporation Holdings.

Those business relations seemingly aided James Chao to arrange meetings with McConnell and the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Jiang Zemin, along with other senior officials. Keep in mind, these meetings took place in the early 1990s when the Chinese government was reeling from international pressure involving the Tiananmen Square massacre. McConnell’s visit helped build legitimacy for a government whom many deemed undeserving due to its human rights record.

He had been a hardliner against China, but Schweizer’s book demonstrated McConnell’s evolving stance. In particular, McConnell co-sponsored a bill to remove the Chinese government’s human rights requirements for trade relations. He also battled against a bill, the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, which would have placed tariffs on goods from countries, such as China, that manipulateits currency to boost exports.

That stance by McConnell was in direct opposition to his prior support for tariffs against Japan for exact same conduct. Obviously, there is a lot of contention as far as the appropriate trading policy with China. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with a politician changing his opinion on a political topic after further research. In fact, such behavior should be encouraged. However, financial conflicts of interest should obviously never impact a politician’s opinions.

With that in mind, it’s unquestionable that James Chao benefited from his relationship with Mitch McConnell. In turn, the McConnell family has certainly prospered from James Chao’s success. Elaine Chao received an inheritance in 2008 after her mother’s death. According to disclosure forms, it was between $5 to $25 million.

On the positive side, Don Blankenship’s lowbrow attack ads have indirectly spurred media attention focused upon political financial conflicts of interest. For example, a few major media organizations have begun examining Elaine Chao’s actions at the Department of Transportation.

Public officials can’t use their positions for their private gain, yet Elaine Chao, along with her father, recently conducted a video interview with a Chinese news organization. It was filmed at the Department of Transportation with the agency’s logo visible in the background, along with the Kentucky state flag. This video touted James Chao’s business, career, and biography.

All in all, Blankenship’s “anti-swamp” rhetoric struck a chord with several voters, but there needs to be actual substance behind an anti-corruption campaign. When citing Schweizer’s work, Blankenship had an opportunity to expand the political consciousness and expose a variety of crooked behavior on Capitol Hill. However, for the most part, that opportunity wasn’t seized and the general public remains unaware of the vast financial conflicts of interests affecting government policy.

 

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