In a scathing attack, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards went after front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Friday, calling her a "corporate Democrat," comparing top Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn to former Bush aide Karl Rove and assailing Penn's ties to Blackwater USA, the embattled private firm of military contractors accused by the Iraqi government of firing upon and killing 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians last month.
"Bush has been a perfect example of cronyism because Blackwater has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republicans and to President Bush," Edwards said in an interview with the Associated Press while campaigning in Iowa. "I also saw this morning that Sen. Clinton's primary adviser, Mark Penn, who is like her Karl Rove -- his firm is representing Blackwater."
Edwards said that he thinks "it is important for Iowa caucus-goers to understand the choices they have in this election. And it is the reason I continue to say we don't want to replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats. I think it is important for caucus-goers to see this choice."
In addition to his role as a top campaign consultant to the Clinton campaign, Mark Penn is the worldwide president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller. The firm's lobbying subsidiary BKSH helped Blackwater's top executive, Erik Prince, prepare for his congressional testimony this week.
Penn could not be reached for comment, but Burson-Marsteller spokesman Paul Cordasco said in a statement that "through a personal relationship, BKSH, a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller, helped Blackwater prepare for their recent hearing before Congress. With the hearing over, BKSH's temporary engagement has ended."
Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer told ABC News that "Mark Penn did no work on the Blackwater account. Burson has cut its ties to Blackwater, and that was the right thing to do. Mark is and remains a valuable member of our team." As for his boss, Singer said, "Sen. Clinton believes Blackwater must be held accountable for its actions and has laid out a detailed proposal to sharply reduce the number of contractors employed by the federal government by 500,000. She has repeatedly stated her concern that such contractors are not as accountable as federal employees."
An official with a rival Democratic campaign added to Edwards' remarks, saying that "when people are asking themselves who can better change the way things are going, Penn is a massive liability. How can you fight for change when you've got someone fighting to keep things exactly as they are on health care, with subprime lenders, and even in Iraq?"
Penn has often come under fire for his company's clients, whose goals are often at odds with liberal politics. Burson has also represented oil and tobacco companies, and worked for corporations to impede union organizing events, about which labor leaders expressed "distress" in a letter to Clinton. Penn said he played no role in any of the anti-union activities. Burson has also represented Countrywide Financial, a subprime loan company also under fire.
His rhetoric against "corporate Democrats" notwithstanding, Edwards, it should be noted, has his own senior strategist with corporate clients, Harrison Hickman, one of the principals in the Global Strategy Group. Global Strategy Group's client list (LINK http://www.globalstrategygroup.com/main.cfm?actionId=globalShowStaticContent&screenKey=cmpClients&categoryKey=clientsClientList&s=gsg) includes Lukoil and General Electric, companies that have done work in Iraq; Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma; and ABC News.
Democratic Candidates Respond to Blackwater
Democrats earlier this week have attempted to make campaign hay over the Blackwater scandal.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., called for more transparency in the process through which contractors are hired and proposed a special FBI unit devoted to investigating charges of contractor abuse.
"We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors," Obama said.
Edwards called for greater accountability in hiring contractors.
"America used to be the beacon of the world, but under the Bush administration and people like Blackwater, the beacon is flickering," he said. "We can restore democracy to our military decisions about war. And we can make sure that scandals like Blackwater become, forever, a thing of the past."
Earlier in the campaign season, Edwards came under fire for having worked for Fortress Investments, a hedge fund tied to offshore tax shelters and subprime lending, practices Edwards has decried. He has redirected part of the $16 million he has invested with Fortress out of a fund that holds ownership in subprime lender Nationstar Mortgage. Edwards also set up a Louisiana Home Rescue Fund to help New Orleans families upon whose homes Nationstar had foreclosed.