Grassley Seeks Disclosure of Ethics Waivers

6/16/2009

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is determined to make public every ethics waiver issued to former lobbyists who now work in the Obama administration. A Jan. 21 executive order put in place restrictions on lobbyists who work for the federal government. The order included a waiver process, allowing exemptions if the "application of the restriction is inconsistent with the purposes of the restriction" or if it is in the "public interest." Grassley is prodding the administration to disclose all waivers granted under the policy. Grassley has also requested information on every letter of recusal that waived employees have on file.

Grassley recently requested a complete list of waivers and letters of recusal, including the names of all individuals and the agencies they are employed with, the reason for granting the waiver, and the issues the employees are disqualified from working on. Grassley's June 10 letter to Robert Cusick, the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), stated, "The American people deserve a full accounting of all waivers and recusals to better understand who is running the government and whether the administration is adhering to its promise to be open, transparent and accountable."

According to Politico, "[Cusick] did not know definitively how many ethics waivers had been granted, but he said 'there's been no great surge of waivers.' Unlike waivers, which have to be approved by White House ethics lawyer Norm Eisen and are on file at the White House, letters of recusal are kept at the agency employing the official and are more difficult to track, Cusick said."

While there is no one place to find all the waivers and letters of recusal, public statements by the White House reveal that only four waivers have been issued to date. The administration has been quite guarded about the exceptions it has granted. According to Grassley's letter, he also wrote in February 2009 asking for details on the waivers from the White House's budget office. Grassley was told that this information will not be available until the annual report required by the executive order is released in 2010. Grassley retorted, "That is unacceptable, and the American people deserve this information in real time."

Further, Grassley wrote that the current system of granting waivers "has created a situation where the transparency and accountability touted by the White House are lost because there is no comprehensive database of the waivers and recusals granted."

As Grassley called for instant disclosure of waivers, so did the executive director of OMB Watch, Gary D. Bass, in an op-ed published in May. Bass stated, "All granted waivers, along with information about the individuals receiving the waivers, should be immediately disclosed. The government should create a comprehensive website that lists any waivers, as well as related lobbying and campaign contribution information pertaining to waived individuals, in easy-to-use, searchable formats."

Meanwhile, new examples to fuel the argument for more transparency continue to pop up. For example, Charles Bolden was recently nominated as administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and he may require a waiver because of his work as a lobbyist for a NASA contractor, ATK. According to the New York Times, "Bolden would be issued a limited waiver to the administration's ethics policy that states appointees cannot take part in matters 'directly and substantially related' to their former employers for two years."

In addition, Andrew McLaughlin, Director of Global Public Policy for Google, has reportedly been nominated for the position of Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House. The nomination has not yet been formally announced. Two consumer groups, the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Watchdog, have said the appointment would violate the intent of Obama's ethics rules.

As Grassley noted, "I am concerned that Section 3 [of the executive order] could be used to gut the ethical heart of the Order. Each day, new nominees to key Government positions are reported. Many of these nominees have been nominated despite the fact that they have previously served as lobbyists or in a manner that would preclude their participation under the Order absent a Section 3 waiver."

Even though the order requires appointees to sign a pledge stating that they will not work on any issues related to their former clients for two years, the administration continues to be bombarded with criticism for nominating appointees whose past work appears to violate the policy. Meanwhile, nonprofit groups continue to call for timely disclosure and clarity of all waivers before the annual report due out in 2010.