Hillary's amazing pile of debt reminds us to be careful who we deal with

Having trouble paying off your debt? So is Hillary Clinton. As of April 2009, the Secretary of State has accumulated more than $2 million in campaign debt. All of it is owed to one creditor: Mark Penn, the former senior Clinton strategist who, his critics say, ran a miserly campaign and lost her the presidential nomination.

With a recession in full swing, Clinton is facing increasing difficulties in paying off her debt. President Obama promised to help persuade his contacts to contribute to Clinton's debt if she endorsed him in the general election. She jumped at the chance, responding with an adoring speech urging everyone to support Obama. Joe Biden then joined in, signing an appeal to more than 3 million Obama donors to help Clinton pay off her campaign debt. President Obama may have thought he had repaid Clinton's support by making her Secretary of State, but her position limits her ability to raise money due to the Hatch Act.

Stuck in a recession and hampered by legal restrictions: where can Clinton get the millions she owes Penn? Well, she could argue that he didn't fulfill his duty to her, running a strategy that miscounted the delegates needed to win and relying heavily on an elitist top-bottom approach that contrasted Obama's grassroots operation. And who hasn't argued their way out of a credit-card fee or a bill for bad service?

Since he was fired in April 2008 for focusing too much on his (arguably conflicting) private work, Penn has been a piñata for Clintonistas in the blogosphere; Bart Motes, writing on The Huffington Post, called him "political swine flu."

But don't feel sorry for Penn. He'll be fine. He's the C.E.O. of public-relations colossus Burson-Marsteller. And Clinton has already paid him more than $4 million. He should have no problem raking in new business, given that he seems willing to have few restrictions on which clients he'll represent. Consider Blackwater Worldwide (now made over as Xe), the private-security firm that notoriously terrorized Iraqis during our current war. Or Countrywide Financial, the lender infamous for fueling the subprime-mortgage crisis, and whose C.E.O., Angelo Mozillo, was named "Worst American C.E.O. of All Time" by Condé Nast Portfolio. Penn has a great, high-paying job, and he's willing to make money from the worst possible clients. He should be able to handle forgiving Clinton's outstanding $2-million-plus loan.

Penn's team declined to comment on this matter, but if there's a personal-finance lesson here, it's this: Watch out who you hire. Check the people they're willing to work with. That will speak volumes for the work they're offering to do for you.

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