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Following weeks of increasing pressure for presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg to break one of the corporate world’s most famously stringent non-disclosure agreements, the Indiana Democrat on Tuesday night revealed a comprehensive list of clients he worked with during his time at McKinsey & Co., one day after the management consulting behemoth announced that it would give Buttigieg permission to disclose their identities.
The client list includes a Canadian grocery store chain, a Michigan insurance company, a handful of environmental non-profits, multiple U.S. government departments and agencies, and Best Buy, all of which gave permission to McKinsey for their identities to be revealed.
“I think people are going to pounce on things no matter what. The best I can do is to explain my story—as much as I can responsibly share,” Buttigieg told The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, the first to report Buttigieg’s client list in full. “But if folks are going to come up with a fanciful theory based on consulting work I did four and a half years out of school, chances are they’ll find a way to do it no matter what I say or do.”
In the interview, Buttigieg said that there were at least four instances after he left McKinsey where he felt that someone at the consulting firm had “done something upsetting.”
“It’s a place that is as amoral as the American business community in general, or at least the corporate community, can be. And that’s one of the problems with it,” Buttigieg told The Atlantic. “I never worked or was asked to work on things that I had a problem with, but it’s a place that I think, like any other law firm or firms that deal with companies, just thinks about client work and doesn’t always think about the bigger implications.”
The disclosure comes after the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, found himself stuck between increasingly sharp-elbowed rivals critical of his lack of transparency and a former employer known for a ruthless corporate culture and a controversial client list.
McKinsey & Co., by which Buttigieg was employed as an associate between 2007 and 2010, had remained publicly silent on the candidate’s increasingly public requests to be released from the non-disclosure agreement he signed during his time there. But on Monday evening, the famously secretive firm announced that it had given his campaign permission to break the non-disclosure agreement.
“After receiving permission from the relevant clients, we have informed Mr. Buttigieg that he may disclose the identity of the clients he served while at McKinsey from 2007 to 2010,” a spokesperson for the firm said in a statement, while asserting that “any description of his work for those clients still must not disclose confidential, proprietary or classified information.”
Buttigieg described his work at McKinsey as mostly involving spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations—and said that his work at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which cut hundreds of jobs and increased premiums in 2009 after calling in McKinsey to help it identify cost savings, had nothing to do with anyone losing their insurance or facing higher premiums.
Instead, Buttigieg told The Atlantic, his work at Blue Cross Blue Shield largely had to do expenditures like printing costs, travel and hotel expenses, and office rents. That assignment, part of a three-month training period, was his first role at McKinsey.
“Mostly I was with fellow consultants in a room working on a spreadsheet,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg pointed out that after three months of training, he was moved off the project, years before any layoffs or premium increases.
“I don’t know what the conclusions were or what it led to,” Buttigieg said. “So it’s tough for me to say.”
The client lists comports with a broad timeline, released by the Buttigieg campaign on Friday, outlining his work at McKinsey between 2007 and 2010, after he earned a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and before he left the company to run for Indiana state treasurer.
Some of Buttigieg’s consulting work took him abroad. In one project, studying economic development for the Department of Defense, Buttigieg made several trips to Iraq and Afghanistan—where he would later deploy as a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer.
“In Iraq, it had to do with a lot of state-owned enterprises that were learning to function in the post-Saddam world, helping them with basic stuff like business planning that just hadn’t been done in the style of international business norms, because it was a quasi-socialist system over there,” Buttigieg told The Atlantic. “In Afghanistan, they knew how to do business, but then there was a lot of trouble scaling it. So we were working more on figuring out how to help businesses grow.”
Those familiar with McKinsey’s corporate culture told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg, as a junior associate, would likely have had little say in what work he was assigned, and said that the rough timeline of his work released on Friday seemed to clear him of any involvement with the firm’s more damning projects. But as former Bain Capital founder Sen. Mitt Romney learned in 2012, involvement in any firm famous for advising that clients cut jobs can be political poison.
McKinsey has a well-deserved reputation as a home for “axe men,” consultants tasked with cutting a client’s costs who often recommend cutting client’s employees. One popular joke among management consultants is that, when asked how to solve the problem of a classroom with three fewer chairs than students, an Ernst & Young consultant advises to buy three chairs; a McKinsey consultant advises to kill three students.
But with the list’s release, Buttigieg said in a statement accompanying the client list, “voters can see for themselves that my work amounted to mostly research and analysis.”
“They can also see that I value both transparency and keeping my word,” Buttigieg said. “Neither of these qualities are something we see coming out of Washington, especially from this White House. It’s time for that to change.”
The firm’s granting of permission removes a major headache for the Buttigieg campaign, as well as a potential legal minefield for a candidate who faced increasingly loud calls to just break the NDA. Experts in contract law and non-disclosure agreements told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg could have abrogated the agreement—but not without a hefty cost.
“Legally, he doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on,” said David Hoffman, a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School and an expert in contract law and the proposed regulation of non-disclosure agreements, before McKinsey’s announcement. “It’s basically client lists and client secrets, and I think that’s exactly why NDAs exist.”
The financial damages stipulated by the consulting firm’s non-disclosure agreement, Hoffman said, could be massive for a candidate who has boasted on the campaign trail that he ranks as the poorest person running for the Democratic nomination.
“Let’s just say he gets up there in front of the press and names every client he had. They can’t unring the bell, so all they can do is sue him for damages,” Hoffman said, adding that damages in the range of two to five million dollars wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for a firm with a vested interest in keeping “reputational hooks into former employees.”
“I think he’d have to pay,” Hoffman said. “And so the question is whether he wants to pay.”
The NDA, which covers Buttigieg’s roughly two-and-a-half-year tenure at the company, had prevented him from publicly discussing the identity of McKinsey’s clients, or the exact work he performed on their cases. In a statement on Friday evening, Buttigieg attempted to quiet the criticism by providing a general timeline for his work at the firm and called for McKinsey to release him from the agreement.
“I am today reiterating my request that McKinsey release me from this agreement, and I again make clear that I authorize them to release the full list of clients I was assigned to serve,” Buttigieg said at the time. “This company must recognize the importance of transparency in the exceptional case of a former employee becoming a competitive candidate for the U.S. presidency.”
Even if Buttigieg had that kind of money on hand to buy himself out of the agreement—or if his campaign were allowed to cover the debt incurred by just holding a press conference and spilling the tea—McKinsey might still have taken him to the cleaners to set an example for other ex-employees with secrets to spill.
“He, or his campaign, could try to buy his way out of it if they wanted,” said Gregory Klass, who teaches contract law at Georgetown University Law Center. “Of course, McKinsey might not take their offer. It has a strong interest in its reputation for confidentiality.”
There is little case law testing the strength of non-disclosure agreements for former management consultants, experts said, in part because renegotiating such agreements almost universally takes place in private arbitration—as do any negotiations over damages sought in the event of an agreement’s abrogation. Buttigieg, too, would have been legally bound from even discussing how thoroughly McKinsey took him to the cleaners. (Unless, that is, Buttigieg wanted to publicly reveal the secret terms of any private settlement, which would then likely result in another private arbitration. Turtles all the way down!)
“What’s tricky about these things is that there’s obviously many contexts in which NDAs make perfect sense,” said Alan E. Garfield, a professor at Delaware Law School. “But there’s also lots of situations—which we’ve seen more and more of—where they can be abusive and deny the public access that they need to know.”
Client identities and trade secrets are normal things for most businesses to want to keep secret, Garfield said—unlike President Donald Trump’s famous fondness for non-disclosure agreements, which are almost hilariously expansive.
“Stormy Daniels is embarrassing, but she’s not a trade secret,” Garfield said. “This kind of situation is a little trickier because it falls somewhere near a perfectly legitimate use.”
“The question is, how did you separate the wheat from the chaff?” Garfield asked.
That was the same quandary facing Buttigieg, who ran his first race for state office in Indiana in part on his experience in the private sector, but has since made little reference to his time at McKinsey on the campaign trail—particularly as the company has faced increasing criticism over its work for a string of ethically dubious clients. Among the firm’s more recent work: identifying Saudi Arabian dissidents who were later arrested by the state, and recommending that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cut down on food and medical care for migrant detainees as a cost-cutting measure.
The public, meanwhile, is not wrong for having concerns about politicians being prevented from candidly discussing their pasts with voters due to non-disclosure agreements, Garfield said.
“We have to be concerned about the increasing use of private ordering to deny the public access to information,” Garfield said. “All of this goes to a larger concern about people with resources and power using the power of their money and lawyers to shelter from the public eye, or to obfuscate, what could be critical information for the public to know.”
Buttigieg has called some of the firm’s more recent work “disgusting,” and has insisted that he would have left the firm rather than participate in any projects that violated his conscience. But Democratic rivals have said that even if his work at the firm were limited entirely to analyzing grocery store price cuts, as he vaguely noted in his 2019 autobiography, Buttigieg’s refusal to talk about his work at the firm is part of a larger trend of opacity.
The McKinsey announcement allows Buttigieg to effectively clear the deck of some of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’s recent attacks which centered on the McKinsey issue as well as his holding closed-door fundraisers, as well as what Warren characterized as a more general lack of transparency.
“He should open up his fundraisers, he should release who is bundling for him, he should make clear who is on his finance team. This is about the conflicts that he is creating every single day right now,” Warren told reporters at a campaign event last week, condemning politicians who “sell access to their time to the highest bidder.”
On Monday, before the McKinsey announcement was made public, Buttigieg campaign manager Mike Schmuhl announced that going forward, the campaign would open fundraisers to reporters and release the names of fundraisers.
“He is the only current presidential candidate who has released the names of people raising money for his campaign, and we will continue to release additional names as more people join our growing effort,” Schmuhl said in a statement.
Buttigieg’s campaign, in turn, has criticized Warren for refusing to make public additional tax returns from her time in the private sector, which the Massachusetts senator has said she would not release.
Buttigieg’s publication of a rough chronology of his time and work at McKinsey on Friday—without naming any clients—did not placate those critiques, even from Democrats who have been positive about his campaign. During an event in Waterloo, Iowa, on Friday night, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked Buttigieg whether breaking the non-disclosure agreement might give him “the moral authority and the high ground against somebody like Trump, who hides behind the lack of transparency to justify everything that he’s doing?”
Buttigieg responded that while, as a low-level employee fresh out of grad school, “it’s not like I was the C.E.O.,” he understood the need for transparency, and would continue to ask McKinsey to release him from the agreement—but that he wouldn’t unilaterally violate it.
“I pushed as much information as I can, without breaking the promise that I made in writing,” Buttigieg said, “and I am asking my former employer to do the right thing: to not make me choose between claiming the moral high ground and going back on my word.”