Kamala Harris influencer niece Meena ‘should create a firewall’ between business and family, some ethics experts advise

In many ways, entrepreneur and influencer Meena Harris’ latest promotional tour was like another – showcasing her latest bestselling children’s book, touting her thriving lifestyle and clothing brand, and talking about her media profile. booming social networks.

But Harris’s connection to power is anything but ordinary, and his propensity to summon his famous aunt, Vice President Kamala Harris, in a post-inauguration media blitz has raised concerns among some ethics experts.

“Confidence in government is suffering in America,” warned Meredith McGehee, executive director of the government’s number one ethics oversight program. “And when we see relationships like this – where it seems the lines between personal relationship, public service, and collection are blurred – it serves to further undermine public trust.

Meena Harris presents a unique challenge for public servants in the age of internet influencers, where visibility and name recognition translates into followers – and followers are commonplace. McGehee said that “using her relationship with the vice president to raise her profile, Meena Harris is playing with fire.”

Trained lawyer and former chief strategy officer at Uber, Meena Harris, 36, launched clothing brand Phenomenal Woman in 2017 – long before Kamala Harris launched her presidential bid. But she faced close scrutiny during the campaign for using her aunt’s name and likeness on Phenomenal Woman’s clothing, including a “Vice President Aunty” hoodie and a “Kamala: c ‘crew neck. is pronounced Veep “.

Shortly after Joe Biden‘s election victory, a Biden-Harris transition team official reportedly ordered Meena to stop selling clothes using her aunt’s image. She seems to have obeyed.

But in podcasts, TV appearances, and magazine profiles, Meena Harris continued to enthusiastically chat about the vice president. In a recent promotional interview, she answered questions about the Vice President’s favorite recipe – roast chicken – and shared her family’s experience at the presidential inauguration.

“I’ve been asked this question a lot, as you can imagine, but the first thing I was concerned about during this ceremony was making sure my daughter could see her,” she said. “Yes, we have a personal relationship, and it’s personal and we’re proud of it, but the reality is we’re also regular – we go through it like everyone else.”

“The temptation is great”

Walter Shaub, former director of the US Bureau of Government Ethics, said Meena Harris “should create a firewall” between her family ties and her business activities. This will likely mean that she will book fewer interview opportunities – but sacrificing some media exposure to save her aunt from any ethical “headache” is the right thing to do.

“It is disreputable that Meena Harris has created trouble for the vice president by appearing to chat about their relationship,” said Shaub, who now heads an ethics initiative at the non-partisan government watchdog project.

“If she wanted to do the right thing, she could tell the show producers before she picked them up, ‘I won’t answer any questions whatsoever about my relative who is in government,” ”Shaub said. “If she did that, of course, that means they would probably stop inviting her. So you have an ethical problem where the temptation is great, but the moral clarity is not vague.”

A spokesperson for Meena Harris declined to comment for this story. Representatives for Vice President Harris also declined to comment when contacted by ABC News.

Ethics experts agreed that while it is Meena Harris’ squarely onus to keep a distance between her family and her company, the risk of not doing so lies with the vice president.

“Because if, in that case, Meena Harris does something that gets her in trouble – because it happens when you live a public life – it’s going to reflect more on the vice president than on a young woman who is an influencer.” , “McGehee said.

Last month, following a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, Meena Harris tweeted a message to her 718,000 subscribers lamenting “violent white men” as “the greatest terrorist threat to our country.”

After it became clear that the Boulder shooter was of Syrian descent, she deleted the tweet – but not before it had racked up over 35,000 likes and 6,000 retweets.

“I deleted a previous tweet about the suspect during the Boulder shooting,” she later tweeted. “I made a guess based on his arrest alive and the fact that the majority of mass shootings in the United States are carried out by white males.”

In media coverage of his deleted tweet, headlines and articles highlighted his connection to the vice president.

Other ethics experts had a more favorable view of Meena Harris’ business endeavors. Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the University of Santa Clara, said it was important to note that Meena Harris embarked on her entrepreneurial journey long before Sen. Kamala Harris ran for president and was later named Biden’s vice president.

Skeet said Meena Harris deserves credit for her brand’s commitment to projecting a empowerment message for under-represented communities, “to have a purpose, to make a difference and to make things better for others”.

“She appears to be a very sharp capitalist, or inclusive capitalist – the model for what you would potentially like to see businessmen be and do,” Skeet said. “So in that sense, his whole business model and approach seems very ethical to me.”

Ignore barriers

Civil servants have long struggled to restrain family members who sought to take advantage of their closeness to power.

In the 1970s, Billy Carter launched “Billy Beer” shortly after his brother, Jimmy Carter, was sworn in as president. Young Carter’s ploy was widely seen as a way to exploit his name recognition for private financial gain.

Prior to the 1988 election, George HW Bush was so concerned about the prospect of family members succumbing to the lure of trading political access for business opportunities that he wrote and published a letter to his son, George W. Bush, warning against “making new friends.” seeking favors.

Family ethical challenges have only increased in recent years for American leaders. During Donald Trump’s four years as president, his eponymous company continued to negotiate real estate transactions and his properties appealed to a range of foreign clients and lobbyists. He was an expert in the ethics of arrangements decried as a disregard of the barriers that traditionally prevented elected officials from profiting from private affairs during their tenure.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden’s political enemies – including Trump – sought to highlight allegations that his family members had exploited their last name in trade deals over the years. Biden’s son Hunter came under scrutiny for undertaking a series of lucrative overseas ventures that appeared to straddle his father’s sphere of influence as vice president.

Shaub said elected officials are often limited in what they can do to influence the choices of their family members.

“When you enter government, your loved ones can be infuriating because you have no legal control over them,” Shaub said. “You only have persuasive power by asking them … your remedy seems limited to not inviting them to Thanksgiving dinner.”

“And while the Vice President seems flawless in that regard,” Shaub said, “Meena Harris must be wondering if she wants to resemble members of the Trump family in any way – and if just being less Trumpian is enough, instead of being. impeccable to avoid the emergence of conflicts of interest. “

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