Political newcomer Kevin Nicholson has touted his career consulting for corporate executives and investors as preparation for his current bid for U.S. Senate.
But Nicholson, R-Delafield, has shielded basic facts about his career from public view — starting with the clients for whom he has consulted.
Nicholson, a principal at the Chicago-based consulting firm ghSMART, did not name his clients on the personal financial report he filed last week with the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, a requirement for all senators and candidates. Such disclosure is required if a candidate or senator provided more than $5,000 in services to that client.
Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody, when asked about the report, said ghSMART signs agreements with its clients to keep their work confidential. Nicholson is working with the Senate Ethics Committee to ensure he satisfies “both his disclosure requirements and his contractual obligations,” Moody said.
“We hope to receive additional guidance from the Senate Ethics Committee soon and, if needed, will update the financial disclosure report as instructed,” Moody said.
Other U.S. Senate candidates who worked as consultants or strategists have publicly disclosed their clients. That includes Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Democratic candidate Evan Bayh, of Indiana.
Nicholson did report to the committee that he collected $362,417 in salary and $808,180 in commissions from ghSMART since the start of 2016. His campaign website says Nicholson “works as an adviser to companies, helping them to solve their toughest strategic and operational problems.”
Why does it matter who Nicholson’s clients were? Brendan Fischer, a political ethics expert with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government accountability group, said it’s important to know what could create conflicts of interest for Nicholson if he’s elected — such as a vote on a bill affecting a former client.
“If a candidate takes office, we want to know who was previously paying them,” Fischer said.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin, meanwhile, says Nicholson needs to be forthcoming about his business career.
Wisconsin voters “deserve to know which special interests have paid Kevin Nicholson nearly $1 million in consulting commissions over the past two years alone,” said Brad Bainum, a spokesman for the party.
Nicholson: ‘I don’t discuss any of my clients’
Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir are vying for the GOP nod to face Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, next year. Madison businessman Eric Hovde also is considering a Republican bid.
The campaign of Vukmir, R-Brookfield, declined to comment on Nicholson’s private-sector career. Vukmir is a nurse who was first elected to state office in 2002. She has until Jan. 4 to file her personal financial report.
Nicholson’s business career, along with his U.S. Marine Corps service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, have been promoted by his campaign as pillars of his resume as a political outsider.
Before joining ghSMART in 2015, Nicholson was an associate at McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s top management consulting firms.
Nicholson said in an interview last month that “I’ve worked for a wide swath of companies and industries.”
“You can sit down, assess a series of complicated issues, and then help people work through problems,” Nicholson said. “Talk about good training for a role like the U.S. Senate — I mean, that’s it.”
Asked about his clients, Nicholson said, “I don’t discuss any of my clients for a whole variety of reasons, including NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) that protect clients from being talked about publicly.”
Fischer and Alex Baumgart, a spokesman and researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, a leading nonpartisan watchdog of money in politics, said the client disclosure requirement broadly applies to Senate candidates. The disclosure requirements are laid out in federal law, with the Ethics Committee the final arbiter of compliance by candidates and senators.
“If Nicholson was advising and directly working with clients at his company in the last two years, he should theoretically be disclosing them,” Baumgart said.
However, Baumgart said a non-disclosure agreement could be among the “legitimate reasons” Nicholson would not disclose his clients. Exceptions to the disclosure requirement include one for information “considered confidential as a result of a privileged relationship established by law,” according to the instructions for completing the report.
There is precedent for candidates for the U.S. House, which has slightly different disclosure requirements, to cite non-disclosure agreements as grounds to not reveal their clients.
Before entering Congress, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company. When he ran for the House in 2012, Cotton did not name his clients in his disclosure report, including in a declaration that he signed non-disclosure agreements with them.
The ghSMART website says Nicholson “serves leading Fortune 500 corporations and investors in the areas of management assessment and organizational change initiatives.”
His work at McKinsey focused on travel, transportation and logistics, the ghSMART website says.
It adds that Nicholson’s teams consulted executives at Fortune 500 companies and “advised clients during multiple Fortune 200 mergers on matters including commercial integration, organizational design, human capital and transformational change.”
According to a resume Nicholson provided in 2012 when he applied for the state Board of Veterans Affairs, on which he currently serves, at McKinsey he was part of “teams analyzing energy savings opportunities” and “ensuring compliance of major banks with government regulations.”
Consulting work by candidates has become an issue in some campaigns, including in 2012 with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney worked as a management consultant for Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Co. before helping launch a private-equity firm, Bain Capital.