When Karen Hughes, George Bush's new hearts-and-minds czar, made her debut trip to the Middle East last week, she repeatedly referred to herself as a "working mom." Hughes, who was sworn in on Sept. 9 as the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and used the phrase to showcase her concern for women's empowerment. (She was not entirely successful; despite efforts to marshal friendly audiences, Hughes was peppered with criticism of the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq, support for Israel and treatment of Muslims.)
Hughes did not, however, elaborate on what kind of work she's been doing since leaving Washington three years ago to spend more time with her husband and teenage son in Texas. According to the financial disclosure form Hughes filed in preparation for taking the new job, she earned $1.8 million between January 2004 and March 14, 2005, when Bush named her to the new post. Between her appointment and swearing-in, Hughes took in $450,000.
The bulk of Hughes's income before her appointment, about $1 million, comes from paid speeches to business and other groups, usually for $50,000 per appearance. The remainder comes from a $750,000 advance for her 2004 memoir, titled "Ten Minutes from Normal," and $45,000 in consulting fees for work on Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.
Hughes is certainly no different from many other Washington insiders in leaving public service for the comparatively lucrative private sector. (Former President Bill Clinton received a $10 million advance for his memoir My Life. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich charges $40,000 and up for speaking engagements.) But Hughes's paid speeches, given after her new role in the Administration was announced on March 14, have raised a few eyebrows. In April, Parker Drilling Co., a Houston oil drilling firm, paid Hughes $50,000 to appear at what Parker spokeswoman Marianne Gooch called a private event hosted by the company's chief. On. Aug. 10, Hughes gave a speech for $30,000 to Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a tort-reform group, 12 days after the Senate voted to approve her nomination. In a letter to the State Department ethics advisor, Hughes said she would "ensure that my appointment to this position takes places after" that final paid speech. Though it is legal for even the closest presidential consigliere to accept speaking fees after being announced for an Administration post, some legal experts and ethics watchdogs questioned the practice. "It may be technically legal, but it certainly doesn't inspire confidence in the system," says Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, a conservative ethics group.
The State Department says Hughes made sure to avoid the appearance of undue influence. "The contracts signed for these speeches included a clause that the organization was not to lobby her on policy or to use her speeches to convey a message through her to the President or the Administration," says State Department official Gordon Johndroe. Hughes was also well within guidelines cemented in a May 2002 opinion by the Justice Department. While acknowledging "the possibility of some abuses," the ruling found that the restrictions on outside income do not to apply until an individual becomes a government employee, normally by being sworn into office or accepting a government salary. Hughes went on the payroll on Aug. 15, five days after her last paid speech, according to Johndroe.
For Hughes, that meant a significant pay cut. Her new government salary is $149,000.
With reporting by Scott MacLeod and Amany Radwan/Cairo