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Reasonable and Unreasonable “Disclosure”

In early December, The New York Times editorial board published an unsigned opinion piece demanding that Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg tell us all who his clients were, and what he did for them, during his 3 year stint at the consulting firm McKinsey and Company.  The background was the news, a few days earlier, that McKinsey had, at one point (well after Mr. Buttigieg’s tenure with them) consulted with ICE on how to reduce the costs of detaining immigrants at the border (and earlier reports about their work for Purdue Pharmaceuticals and various corrupt foreign governments), which put the company into the spotlight of the Presidential campaign as the villain du jour.  Elizabeth Warren pounced on the topic, demanding that we needed to know who he worked for because we needed to know “what conflicts of interest” they might entail.

I think both The NYT editorialists and Ms. Warren are way over the top in their concerns.  Put this in perspective: as a new college graduate, Mr. Buttigieg took a job as a junior-level analyst at a well-respected consulting firm that had a history of consulting on public policy issues as well as with businesses.  He lasted 3 years in the job and then — 9 years ago — left to pursue a career in politics (or in “public service”, depending on how you want to view it).  Clearly, he was not a part of the corporate decision-making apparatus that chose what clients to work for and what work to do for them.  And, clearly, he decided within a relatively short time that consulting with McKinsey was not the career path he wanted to pursue for the long term.

Who would really think, if they were being at all fair and honest about it, that such a brief and low-level association that long ago would create any significant and lingering conflicts of interest?  And who, if they were being at all fair and honest about it, would hold whatever work he was asked to do in that brief and low-level association against him, even if it turned out to be less than tasteful in the current political environment?  In the worst case, one might imagine that being asked to do something personally distasteful — had that actually happened — might well have been his motivation for leaving.

More troubling, however, was the attitude both the editorialists and Ms. Warren seemed to hold toward the Non-Disclosure Agreement that prevents Mr. Buttigieg from discussing what he did for McKinsey and its clients.  Such agreements are both common and essential to the nature of the consulting business; and the cavalier way in which he was urged, by these self-appointed guardians of the public interest, to simply disregard such a binding legal and moral obligation is more worrisome than anything he may or may not have done for McKinsey.

I wrote this as a letter to the editors of The New York Times. It was not published.  They did publish a letter, from Steve Bernitz, a former employee of McKinsey, which made similar points.  Though it mentioned the notion that many people (“…whether as lawyers or as legislators or as businesspeople…”) have confidences in their pasts that must be protected, it was more in passing than as the primary focus.  Since that was the main topic of my piece, I think it is still worth putting out there.

8 December 2019

Ref: “Buttigieg’s Untenable Vow of Silence” (5 Dec 2019)

Imagine you go to your doctor or your lawyer or your therapist.  You need their counsel; or you need them to fix something that has gone wrong, with your health or with your life.

Perhaps what you are talking with them about is emotionally sensitive.  Perhaps it is embarrassing.  Perhaps it could make you vulnerable to financial damage or incite family strife if it became common knowledge.  Why, then, do you feel safe confiding in them and asking for their help?  Because you know they are not allowed to tell anyone else about it.  Doctor-Patient and Attorney-Client privilege are the law, and they are absolute.

Here’s the thing: That doctor and lawyer and therapist: they are consultants that you have hired to help you with a problem.  And that privilege you enjoy: it is a de facto Non-Disclosure Agreement.

Business consultancies, like McKinsey, ask employees, like Pete Buttigieg, to sign NDAs because they deal with sensitive and embarrassing and potentially damaging information that their clients share with them.  Those consultancies, themselves, sign equivalent NDAs with their clients.  And, as do doctors and lawyers and therapists, those consultancies and the consultants who work for them consider the NDAs they sign to be not merely legal obligations but sacred trusts.  McKinsey cannot relieve Pete Buttigieg of his obligations under his employee NDA unless its clients first relieve McKinsey, itself, of its corresponding obligations under those client NDAs.  What client would choose to inject itself into the middle of the partisan warfare of the Presidential primary by doing so?  And, really, why should they?

It is no more reasonable to demand that Pete Buttigieg disclose who he did work for at McKinsey and what that work entailed than it would be to demand that a doctor or a therapist running for office disclose his or her list of patients and all their medical and psychological histories, or to demand that a lawyer running for office disclose his or her list of clients and the details of all their legal troubles.


Update: As of 10 December, McKinsey had obtained permission from their clients to acknowledge the work done for them and gave Pete Buttigieg permission to talk about it.  I will admit that I am somewhat surprised by that — not because I thought there might have been anything nefarious about what he had worked on but because, as innocent of any malfeasance as those clients may be, it can only serve to drag them into the middle of this mud-slinging contest.  It’s an open invitation for any ambitious reporter to “investigate” them, with the sole purpose of finding some minor thing that looks vaguely like dirt to “expose” .  Who would want that?


© Copyright 2019, Augustus P. Lowell

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