When It Comes To Wealthy Leaders,
the World Abounds With Cautionary Tales

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When Donald Trump takes office next month, he will have more financial conflicts of interest than any president before him. A spokesman today suggested Trump was moving to reduce them and that he'd sold all of his stock holdings back in June. But that's only a fraction of his wealth, which is largely made up of real estate and golf courses.

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Critics fear Trump's many remaining interests may allow him to profit off the presidency to a degree never seen before. Trump says he'll reveal plans next week for how he'll exit his business operations. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, other countries have elected businessmen as leaders, and sometimes they've turned into ethical disasters.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Donald Trump is by no means the first billionaire to lead a country. The former Soviet Republic of Georgia elected a president worth about $5 billion, which was a third of the country's annual economic output. Ukraine, India, Thailand and Austria have all elected politicians with immense wealth, says Darrell West, vice president of government studies at the Brookings Institution.

DARRELL WEST: Most of the time they win. And they win for exactly the same reason that Trump did, which is - people, like business people - they think they know how to create jobs and build the economy. And it's kind of a white-night phenomenon.

ZARROLI: West says many of those who won office were elected as reformers. And they tended to be of a type, flamboyant and provocative, doing and saying things that career politicians never would. West says a lot of these people were very popular, at least in the beginning.

WEST: Over time, people notice that they're not separating their personal businesses from the government. There is corruption. Their friends are getting rich. And by the end, they almost always suffer a big fall in popularity.

ZARROLI: Some of the worst cases of scandal were in the developing world and especially in the former Soviet republics. But there was also media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who served nine years in total as Italy's prime minister. Journalist Alexander Stille says Berlusconi had grown rich in part through bribery and corruption. As soon as he was elected, he set about trying to derail investigations into his conduct by rewriting the penal code and giving immunity to business associates. He even had members of his own defense team elected to parliament.

ALEXANDER STILLE: It was a situation where the conflict of interest was massive and entered into some of the most important business of the Italian state.

ZARROLI: The Italian judiciary pursued criminal investigations against Berlusconi for abuse of power. And his infamous bunga bunga parties became a major scandal.

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Speaking Italian).

ZARROLI: Yet Berlusconi stayed popular for a long time, until the collapse of the Italian economy.

STILLE: I wish I could say that people were deeply affected by the moral challenges that Berlusconi posed. But, unfortunately, I think that's not true.

ZARROLI: To Meredith McGehee of the government reform group Issue One, the Berlusconi case illustrates what happens when politicians can pursue policies that benefit them financially. And it underscores the need to set up strong firewalls between elected leaders and their business interests.

MEREDITH MCGEHEE: Those places where you've had these kinds of businessmen as leaders - and they have not taken steps to take care of these conflicts. Their administrations have become bogged down in scandal.

ZARROLI: McGee says that's especially important right now because the United States has often held itself up as a paradigm of clean government. U.S. officials travel the world, proselytizing about the need to have strong anti-bribery laws and an independent legal system.

MCGEHEE: The United States has been the shining light on these issues and has been respected around the world for setting the standard of how you deal with these conflicts. And I would hate to see us lose that leadership.

ZARROLI: McGehee says, unless Trump take strong action to separate his business interests from his presidency, he will undermine that message. And that could set back the fight against corruption all over the world. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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