WASHINGTON (AP) — Jeb Bush's deep dive into corporate America, where he served on the boards or as an adviser to more than a dozen companies, could trigger complications for him if he wins the White House.
Companies that paid Bush as a board member or adviser regularly hire lobbyists to press issues in Washington before federal agencies, the House, Senate and White House, according to a review by The Associated Press. Others have been fined by U.S. agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, or faced inquiries from the Securities and Exchange Commission or Justice Department. Some are expected to conduct business beyond November 2016 directly affected by U.S. government decisions.
That nexus raises potentially thorny questions for Bush if he were elected president: How would he respond when one of the companies that paid him seeks favorable treatment or undergoes scrutiny from the federal government? And, how would federal agencies that report to the White House respond?
That potential entanglement could hamper any presidential candidate with a history in corporate America, such as Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state whose family foundation received big-money support from corporate interests, or Republican contender Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and onetime adviser to the CIA.
"Anytime you have these kinds of entanglements, there's certainly the potential for conflict," said Dale Eisman, a spokesman for Common Cause, a nonprofit focused on government accountability.
Transparency is vital, so "everyone knows what the president owns and has owned and knows what his or her connections have been," he said.
Unlike lower-ranking employees, a president can't effectively recuse himself and pass on a decision to a more-neutral supervisor.
Executive branch employees are prohibited from participating in matters where they have a personal financial interest or when people affiliated with them have a financial interest. They're supposed to step aside in cases where there is a "close causal link" between their official actions and their finances, and when a decision would result in a "real possibility of gain or loss."
Bush began shedding his corporate ties late last year to prepare his run for president. Potential conflicts of interest involve federal interactions with companies that paid him millions.
Beyond his own companies and educational foundations, Bush was a board member or adviser to at least 15 companies and nonprofits after leaving the governor's office early in 2007, an AP review found. At least seven of those companies lobbied the federal government in recent years — an effort likely to continue over issues ranging from health care to corporate taxes.
Bush spokesman Tim Miller said Florida's former governor won't play favorites.
"If Jeb is successful in his campaign, special interests are going to find his administration to be unwelcome territory because he's going to clean out the broken tax and regulatory system," Miller said. "As governor he vetoed over $2 billion from allies and political opponents alike because that's how he governs."
In a conference call with Alabama Republicans last month, Bush said a president shouldn't be deterred by perceived conflicts when appointing agency heads. Asked in the call to cite his first potential action as president, Bush targeted the heads of federal agencies.
"First, appoint men and women that have practical experience in the whole regulatory alphabet soup," he said. "For this president, political hacks and academics kind of fill the space that, if you have something as a matter of expertise, you're considered in conflict. I think we need to put people that have a balanced view on the EPA, in the SEC, the FDA."
The companies Bush formerly advised frequently appear before such regulatory agencies.
Take, for instance, Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, where Bush served on the board of directors for eight years through 2014, earning nearly $2.4 million in compensation. In the past two years, Tenet has hired lobbyists to represent its interests on dozens of issues in Washington, including the congressional budget, Medicare's reauthorization and the Hospital Payment Fairness Act.
Tenet has benefited from President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, with the company's CEO telling media last year that a ramp-up of newly insured people led to an uptick in admissions to its hospitals. Republicans, including Bush, have chided what they call "Obamacare," raising the specter that a GOP White House victory could lead to a legislative imbroglio — and trigger a massive lobbying effort from industry.
Tenet's lobbying goes well beyond one issue, and on matters that would continue through the next administration, including Medicare, a hospital readmission program and the Veterans' Access to Care Act. Since 2014, the company put its lobbyists to work before 10 different federal agencies and offices, including the Senate, House, Office of the President, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Food and Drug Administration and the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.
Tenet spokesman Donn Walker lauded Bush's tenure on the board. But he said Tenet could not discuss the potential complications should Bush rise to the White House, noting that the scenario was a hypothetical.
Another example is Rayonier Inc., a publicly traded Florida timber company where Bush served on the board of directors from 2008 to 2014 and earned nearly $1 million in total compensation.
This year, Rayonier has hired lobbyists on federal issues involving taxation of timberland, an international trade dispute involving U.S. pulp production and the tax treatment of timber real estate investment trusts, or REITs. Rayonier's lobbyists went to work before the Senate and House.
Last November, with Bush on the board, the SEC subpoenaed Rayonier over its public filings; the company said it is cooperating with the agency, whose chair is appointed by the president.
Rayonier spokesman Mike Bell said any candidate seeking to rise to national prominence would naturally bring "a body of knowledge, background associations and affiliations with business and nonprofits and many other groups."
Bush's experience in commercial real estate, in fact, is a reason Rayonier, which has a wholly owned real estate subsidiary, appointed him to the board. "He was an outstanding board member and provided excellent advice and counsel," Bell said.
Rayonier won't stop lobbying in Washington. "There isn't anybody that isn't affected by decisions that are made in the Congress or the executive branch," he said. "We cannot remove ourselves and disengage from issues that impact our company."
Bell doesn't believe the connection would be troublesome. "I am confident that Gov. Bush knows when to recuse himself," he said. "I don't think it's an issue that he has difficulty with. He knows what his role is and he knew what his role was when he was on our board."
Another potential connection involves the Barrick Gold Corp., an international mining company. Bush served on Barrick's international advisory board from 2011 to 2013; the company and Bush have declined to discuss his compensation.
In the last two years, Barrick lobbyists pressed issues with the Senate, House, Army Corps of Engineers, Treasury and EPA — on issues ranging from federal permitting to the Clean Water Act, international debt relief and International Monetary Fund.
Barrick has been fined by the EPA, an agency whose head is appointed by the president. In 2013, for instance, the EPA fined three Barrick gold mining subsidiaries for failing to correctly report toxic chemical releases and waste management activities. The companies, Barrick Cortez Inc., Barrick Gold U.S. Inc. and Homestake Mining Co., agreed in a settlement to pay $278,000 in penalties and spend $340,000 on an environmentally beneficial project.
Andy Lloyd, a Barrick spokesman, said the company complies with lobbying regulations in every country it serves, "and we will continue to do so. That would include compliance with any conflict-of-interest guidelines issued by the White House or other federal authorities."
Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.