WASHINGTON -- Blazing a new path for a vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney has returned to her job at a Washington think tank and plans to continue serving on corporate boards. Government watchdogs see possible conflicts of interest.
Cheney is resuming her work as a researcher, lecturer and writer at the American Enterprise Institute while her husband, Dick, serves as vice president. She also will remain on the boards of American Express mutual funds and Reader's Digest Association Inc. All three are paid positions.
A well-known conservative commentator, critic of political correctness and former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cheney said a job would be no big deal if the vice president's spouse was a man.
"Then the question will be, well, should their husbands work? Well, of course," Cheney said recently on CNN's "Larry King Live."
Wives of vice presidents have never worked at paid private jobs, choosing instead to assume quasi-government roles as advocates for various causes. Tipper Gore, for instance, focused on mental health and Marilyn Quayle worked on disaster relief.
Aides said Cheney still plans to take on issues in her official role as the vice president's wife -- she gets an office and several staffers -- and she'll likely focus on education reform, which is also the subject of a book she's writing.
As for her paid jobs, President Bush's aides said lawyers have determined that Cheney's board positions don't pose a problem. "It's all been checked off, cleared, approved by the attorneys, and we're proud of her," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
But critics contend the situation raises troubling questions about possible conflicts of interest when administration policies affect the companies.
Vice President Cheney also will cast tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided Senate, putting him in a decisive position over legislation that could affect companies where his wife is a director, they say.
"It is inappropriate," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the private Center for Public Integrity. The companies "have all kinds of things they are lobbying for. It looks terrible."
Aides said Lynne Cheney is adhering to Senate ethics rules -- the vice president is also president of the Senate -- that don't prohibit lawmakers' spouses from being members of corporate boards, require senators to disclose their spouses' income and limit lobbying activities. Several Senate spouses are corporate directors.
The American Enterprise Institute would not disclose Cheney's salary. Directors at American Express mutual funds are paid around $110,000 a year, company officials said. The corporation puts up money to start the 75 funds, manages them and has three directors on the 13-member board.
Arne Carlson, a former Republican governor of Minnesota and chairman of the board, said Cheney and nine other directors are independent of American Express' parent company and represent the interests of shareholders, not the corporation. He said Cheney has been a strong advocate for consumers since she joined the board in 1994.
"I can't conceive of where the conflict would exist," said Carlson.
American Express is affected by an array of government regulations pertaining to securities, banking and insurance. It lobbied last year for a bankruptcy bill that passed Congress but was vetoed by President Clinton.
Directors at Reader's Digest receive an annual retainer consisting of $32,000 worth of company stock and $18,000 in cash, the company said. Cheney, a director since 1993, owns approximately 5,400 shares of Reader's Digest stock, worth about $212,652 based on current share value.
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