Ambassador’s Misconduct Shows Consequences of Appointing Donors as Diplomats

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A newly released investigation by the Department of State Office of Inspector General (OIG) has revealed misconduct and mismanagement by a U.S. ambassador — a wealthy businessman with no prior foreign policy experience — who was appointed to the role after making hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.  

While unacceptable, these revelations are not exactly shocking. Last year, Campaign Legal Center warned in a report that, like every modern president of both political parties, President Biden has continued to appoint wealthy political donors with little to no foreign policy background to be U.S. ambassadors — despite his campaign promise to end this decades-old practice. The inspector general report demonstrates that this has had damaging consequences.  

Before his appointment to be U.S. ambassador to Singapore, Jonathan Kaplan was CEO of “The Melt,” which owned grilled cheese restaurants in California. In a required message to Congress on his qualifications, the State Department praised Kaplan’s business experience but didn’t note any foreign policy expertise or knowledge of Singapore.

CLC’s research revealed that Kaplan personally contributed $104,800 to various Democratic political committees in the 10 years prior to his nomination to be ambassador to a key regional ally. Moreover, he served as a high-dollar fundraiser for President Biden’s 2020 campaign.  

The inspector general’s report on Kaplan’s conduct in office is scathing. “A review of his conduct and performance by the Department is needed,” it urges. “The Ambassador did not hold himself to the highest standards of conduct, performance, and ethics to model integrity.”  

The OIG found that the ambassador steered embassy priorities for his own personal benefit, while neglecting the day-to-day work of diplomacy. Instead of advancing U.S. foreign policy, Kaplan “developed poor relationships with some [Singaporean] ministries and his actions, in some cases, hurt progress on ICS goals and objectives.” The report also found he was abusive and bullying toward the foreign service officers who staff the U.S. embassy.

In one incident, Kaplan directed staff to organize a reception in support of Ukraine featuring a concert by his friend, a professional pianist. The reception cost $27,812, “leading the embassy to reduce funding for other public diplomacy programs that might have more effectively advanced U.S. interests in Singapore.” Kaplan also ordered nearly $10,000 in unauthorized spending, including for a “furniture research project” for his residence.

It's now up to the president whether Kaplan gets to stay in his post or if it’s time for a new ambassador in Singapore. But Congress and the president should also take steps to ensure that future ambassadors are experienced diplomats who perform their duties competently and professionally, not wealthy donors.

State Department inspector general reports, like the one reviewing Kaplan’s performance, are sporadic. That’s because the office is only required to review foreign posts once every five years — a longer period than a presidential term and thus longer than many ambassadors’ tenures.

The Department of State should instead create a system that triggers an investigation of a post if issues arise, perhaps through a regular survey that gives staff an opportunity to anonymously raise flags about management issues.

The inspector general’s efficacy is also hampered by the fact that the post of State Department inspector general has been vacant for 1,396 days as of this writing. A series of acting heads have been filling the role since former President Donald Trump fired the last permanent inspector general.  

Appointing a Senate-confirmed inspector general is a first, basic step toward ensuring accountability at this crucial agency.

Improved public transparency about ambassador nominees would also help. The State Department’s certificate of a nominee’s qualifications ought to give a longer and more detailed history of their campaign contributions and fundraising, and be more specific about country-specific expertise, while addressing any gaps.  

But ultimately, there is a much simpler step that Congress and the president should take: Stop nominating and confirming donor-ambassadors.

Jonathan Kaplan is one among many donor-ambassadors whose misconduct and malfeasance in office has jeopardized U.S. foreign policy priorities and our international standing. America cannot afford to continue rewarding political donors with official posts.

Roger is a Senior Researcher, Campaign Finance and Ethics.