Wealthy and tapped to serve

Rex Tillerson earned more in one year as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil than most of us will earn in a lifetime — $10 million just in cash, let alone the stock options. That’s not a critique, just an observation from Tillerson’s financial reporting form.

The New York Times, which published the forms, reports Tillerson is the first Trump appointee to complete the heavy reporting requirement.

Retired as of Dec. 31 from his job at the top of Exxon, Tillerson is, of course, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. The spheres where people like Tillerson operate often resemble latter-day peerages. By that I mean, if you were a house painter and the Tillersons — or your average NFL team owner — needed their house painted, I doubt you’d walk the place and discuss it directly with Rex or Mrs. Tillerson. People at that level have people to handle that sort of thing for them. I would if I could.

Anyhow, while the politicians will no doubt praise and excoriate the nominees as they come up in the Senate, it’s worth reading a disclosure and ethics submission. People like Rex Tillerson — and countless wealthy appointees by both parties — do make tangible and substantial changes in their lives to serve. Just to pick one, outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was CEO of a big and successful retailer, R.E.I. She had to leave that and a long list of boards and associations.

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Tillerson promises, if confirmed, to resign from his positions with a variety of organizations that presumably fill some important interest: the Ford’s Theatre Society, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Boy Scouts of America (he’s an Eagle Scout). He already resigned from the Business Roundtable and the American Petroleum Society.

That’s the fun stuff. The financial side of things means relinquishment of real authority and money. For instance, Tillerson agrees to give up a big chunk of preferred ExxonMobil stock — the shares with power — in return for the cash value going into an irrevocable trust. He also forfeits three years’ worth of “earnings bonus units.” These are potentially large cash payments to certain executives based on company earnings.

If confirmed, Tillerson also agrees to forgo the standard retiree (at his level) benefits such as medical insurance, office space and administrative support, even a gasoline and motor oil discount card. He gives up a life insurance plan. He’d have to resign from a foundation bearing his name … and any management decision-making connected to a ranch he and his wife own.

Whether and how much of this could return after Tillerson would leave the government, the form doesn’t say and I don’t know.

I highlight this disclosure form not so much as what it shows about Rex Tillerson, in particular, but rather for how it’s a useful piece of insight into the human reality of what it takes to accept a cabinet position, or at least a nomination for one, in today’s U.S.A. I’ve never met Tillerson and don’t have any opinion about him. My only connection to his former company is that I fill my car’s gas tank with high-test from a nearby Exxon station.

Ultimately, these ethics forms only show what nominees will and won’t do in the narrowest application of the term ethics. Whether they’ll exercise sound judgment; always put U.S. interests first without mental reservation; take care with the agency’s processes, traditions and people; even at 47 pages long — why, no form can show that.

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