In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign due to revelations that he had accepted bribes as Governor of Maryland. Why is this important nearly forty years later? Simple: If Mitt Romney chooses Tim Pawlenty as his running mate, we may have another Agnew on our hands.
Before he became Governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty spent two years on the board of directors for NewTel Holdings, a telecommunications corporation owned by his longtime friend Elam Baer. In addition to this work, Pawlenty also earned $4,500 a month as a consultant and legal adviser to a pay-phone company called New Access, a NewTel subsidiary accused of defrauding thousands of customers in seven states by signing them up for local and long-distance service without their permission. Although Pawlenty has been happy to talk about other aspects of his business career, he has stayed remarkably mum on the exact nature of what he did for New Access.
His relationship with Baer did not end there. In his first year as governor, Pawlenty was discovered to have accepted $54,000 in cash from Baer, despite being unable to document any work done in exchange for this payment. To make this transaction legal under Minnesota state law, Pawlenty classified it as compensation for his purported performance as an "independent contractor." Even this ostensible legality could be questionable, however, since Pawlenty has been unable to describe his independent contracting position in any meaningful detail or even prove that it existed in the first place. While these activities would be unquestionably illegal in most other states, Pawlenty benefited from the weakness of Minnesota's campaign finance laws and the meager attention paid to this scandal by the local media. Even so, there is little doubt that it would come under further scrutiny if he became Romney's running mate ... scrutiny that seems, upon first glance, like it would not be very flattering.
It is important to remember that, when Richard Nixon chose Agnew to be his running mate in 1968, there were hints of the presence of fiscal impropriety in the Maryland Governor's past. Although none of them had been proven at the time, the fact that subsequent revelations eventually compelled his resignation shows that it's not enough for a future vice president to simply be free of verified criminality; he or she must also be free of any dark clouds that could lead a reasonable person to even suspect such criminality exists. While this standard may seem unfairly rigid, it is a small price to pay to make sure that our nation is spared the ordeal of scandal at the highest levels of power. Indeed, had Agnew's exposure occurred only a year or so later, it would have been after he had replaced Richard Nixon in the presidency post-Watergate, thus forcing America through two consecutive prospective impeachments.
The media will thus have a responsibility to ask five questions of Mitt Romney, should he select Tim Pawlenty:
1) Does he agree that the integrity of potential vice presidents should be above all reasonable suspicion?
2) Did he know about these aspects of Pawlenty's past before picking him?
3) Will he believe that Pawlenty should be required to fully explain his background with New Access?
4) Will he believe that Pawlenty should provide adequate detail about the nature of the payment he received from Elam Baer, as well as proof substantiating his version of the story?
5) Should voters interpret Romney's selection of Pawlenty as an implicit endorsement of Minnesota's extremely permissive campaign finance reform laws?
If Romney answers yes to these questions, then the burden will fall on him to (a) explain why he selected Pawlenty despite his past and (b) guarantee that Pawlenty fully and satisfactorily responds to the third and fourth queries. On the other hand, if Romney answers any of these question in the negative – or if, even worse, he tries to evade them – then his leadership skills will need to be called into serious question.