Wine Caves, Darkness & Sunlight


It’s been a several weeks since the Buttigieg/ Wine Cave story echoed far beyond the quiet vineyards of Napa Valley. It burst into daylight against the backdrop of a polluted Trumpian culture of influence peddling, corruption, self-dealing, law-breaking, political tone-deafness and the sale of ambassadorships to rich people, like Gordon Sondland.

Nothing that the Buttigieg campaign has done — nor any other Democratic campaign for that matter, including Joe and Hunter Biden’s blindness to appearances of conflict — comes close to the utter illegality and outright criminal actions taken by Donald Trump. Trumps explicit criminality includes three specific federal crimes spelled out in the 600-plus page House Judiciary Committee Report: Bribery, Wire Fraud and Honest Services Fraud. Those precise crimes carry with them a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison, if the perp President is convicted. And, that’s not counting the damage done to the nation spelled out in the two Articles of Impeachment vs. Trump.

By comparison, holding a fund-raiser in a Wine Cave is like having a cute costume party, especially at a time when an entire Administration has been systematically corrupting the public’s business and conducting it under a Soviet-style curtain of secrecy. Precisely because of the monumental corruption of Trump and his international crime family, Democratic Presidential Candidates have to be super-sensitive to any action that lookssuspicious, even when it’s not.

Wine Caves themselves are not inherently suspicious, nor hotbeds of corruption. They serve a real purpose, are environmentally sound, and, as the Napa Valley Register reported in a story headlined, “The History of Napa Valley Wine Caves & the Talk of the Democratic Debate” (12/20/2019), wine caves are “primarily used for storing and aging wine, both in barrel and bottle,” with natural temperature control, low exposure to light and minimal vibration.

I’m betting Buttigieg is wishing that the wine cave of the wealthy Craig & Kathryn Hall had even less exposure to daylight and political vibrations. As a Napa resident, I’ve visited many wine caves on hot Napa Valley summer days; not one had a Swarovski Crystal chandelier, nor smelled of secrecy; only wine.

So, if the wine cave itself is not to blame for the pre-pubescent PR faux pas, what, or who is? Obviously, someone on the not-so-buttoned up Buttigieg campaign failed to do some basic homework on the history of their hosts, the Halls, mega-donors to many Democratic campaigns going back 30 years.

Any cursory fact-checking by Mayor Pete’s team could have easily discovered that Kathryn Hall was appointed Ambassador to Austria by President Bill Clinton — a huge red-flag at the very time Trump’s sale of an ambassadorship to Gordon Sondland has dominated the news for months. Just because Clinton did the same thing Trump did with a much more likeable person, doesn’t make it right. If anything, it helps normalize Trump’s terrible behavior. Selling ambassadorships is wrong, whoever does it.

Overlooking the pay-to-play nature of the Hall’s Sondland-like relationship with the Clinton’s was, however, not the most egregious oversight by Mayor Pete’s inexperienced staff. All they had to do was Google the billionaire real estate developer and investor the way the Associated Press’ Brian Slodysko did, to find out what else the Hall’s wanted buried deep underground.

Slodysko’s story, which appeared on December 13, 2019, only six days before the Democratic Presidential Debate in LA, carried a striking headline: “Swarovski Crystals, $900 Cabernet, and A Buttigieg Fundraiser.” Far more damaging than the headline, was the history of Craig Hall’s political donations and their consequences. The quotes below are from the AP story:

Craig and Kathryn Hall are prolific donors who split their time between Dallas and their California wineries. But they have also drawn notoriety over their past giving, as well as Craig Hall’s role in a 1980 Savings & Loan crisis.

Risky investments by Craig Hall, the Chairman and founder of the Hall Group, during the S & L meltdown in the 1980’s, culminated in an over $300 million federal bailout and the resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, a Democrat he turned to for help.”

Federal regulators had been zeroing in on a series of Hall’s unpaid loans. To push back, the developer and bank operator turned to Wright, who was then ascending in the House Leadership, to get them to back off, the AP reported at the time.”

The most damning information in the AP story of December 13, was still to come:

“Wright held up legislation that would have given the struggling industry a $15 billion lifeline…a few days later, the regulator overseeing some of Hall’s loans was replaced, and the legislation moved forward…Taxpayers eventually covered the cost of Hall’s default while the developer’s outreach to Wright played a central role in the Congressional Ethics Investigation that toppled him from the Speaker’s Office in 1989.

In 1993, the year Craig and Kathryn Hall were married, he (Hall) agreed to pay a $100 million settlement, and moved on.”

It was bad enough that Buttigieg’s bush-league staffers, exhibiting no historical memory, bungled this big time, allowing GOP apologists for Trump to use the “both sides are corrupt” falsehood, when the magnitude of Trump’s law-breaking and mendacity exceeds anything in American history. Allowing such a damaging story about Hall and former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright to rise from the grave after it was buried for three decades is a colossal act of incompetency by Buttigieg’s bumblers.

Far worse, was the fact that the New York Times, one week after the AP story appeared, ignored every single one of the facts reported, to permit the wine-maker to use the newspaper’s pages to whine about the “unfairness” of attacks on him.

In a December 20, 2019, story headlined “ Democrats Sparred Over a Wine Cave Fundraiser: It’s Billionaire Owner Isn’t Pleased,” by Carol Pogash and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, the Times became a megaphone for Craig Hall’s moaning:

I’m just a pawn here,” said Craig Hall. “They’re making me out to be something that’s not true, and they picked the wrong pawn. It’s just not fair…These people don’t know who they’re talking about when they throw me in the class that they did.”

Actually, it appears that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar knew exactly who and what they were talking about: caving-in to big donors has plagued political campaigns & government for decades. What’s “unfair” and unconscionable, is that both the Buttigieg team and the New York Times failed to uncover, or worse, ignored, publicly known information about the Wine Cave’s owners who are hardly innocent “pawns” in the pay-to-play game of politics.

By awakening this long-sleeping story from hibernation, Buttigieg’s judgement is suspect, and his staff’s historical blindness has dug a deeper tunnel from which all Democrats must emerge. Democratic candidates running for President, the US Senate and the House in 2020 need to be bathed in bright sunlight, offering a sharp, stark contrast to the destructive darkness, rampant corruption and continuing crime spree of Trump and the GOP — actions which threaten to push our democracy back to the days of cave-dwellers.

This is no time for amateurs, nor for Clinton apologists. Democracy thrives in sunlight.

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