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Obama skirts own ban on employing former lobbyists in White House

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama refused contributions from lobbyists. As president, he signed an executive order forbidding lobbyists from holding White House jobs dealing with policy matters they recently handled in their lobbying careers.

It had been a promise of candidate Obama, and it looked like a promise kept.

But then came the waivers. And recusals.

Just two months in office, Obama's White House has granted a number of exceptions to his rigid and celebrated rule, triggering a debate among pundits and a ruling of Promise Broken by the PolitiFact Obameter.

The most notable exception to Obama's "no lobbyists" pledge is his nomination of former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn to be deputy defense secretary. Lynn lobbied for Raytheon as recently as 2008 but received a waiver under the executive order so he could serve in the administration.

That nomination got people talking. David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, asked, "Is this the same Obama who promised on the campaign trail to clean up the ways of Washington?" Bloggers on both the left and the right wondered if Obama had overpromised.

"The president was right to see a problem. Trust in government is at rock bottom," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow for governance study at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "But it's also the case that the higher your standards are, the more likely you are to run afoul of them at some point."

What the public has learned about Lynn's waiver has come not from a transparent White House, but rather thanks to the Senate confirmation process he had to undergo.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, opposed Lynn's nomination to that position. Lynn would be the top operations manager at the Pentagon, with final authority on a number of contract, program and budget decisions, Grassley argued.

"I simply cannot comprehend how this particular lobbyist could be nominated to fill such a key position at DOD overseeing procurement matters, much less be granted a waiver from the ethical limitations listed in the Executive Order," Grassley wrote in a letter to the Obama administration on Jan. 29.

The Obama White House defended its guidelines as some of the strictest ever on executive branch personnel and said Lynn was uniquely qualified given his previous positions as undersecretary of defense (as comptroller) under President Bill Clinton, assistant to the secretary of defense for budget, and a legislative counsel for defense and arms control to Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Lynn was confirmed 93 to 4 on Feb. 11.

In addition to Lynn, two other former lobbyists are serving in the administration.

Jocelyn Frye is director of policy and projects in the Office of the First Lady. She previously lobbied for National Partnership for Women and Families from 2001 to 2008. Obama has supported many of the laws for which Frye lobbied.

Cecilia Muñoz is director of intergovernmental affairs in the Executive Office of the President, managing the White House's relationships with state and local governments. Muñoz formerly lobbied for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, between 1998 and 2008. Records show she lobbied on issues like the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), improving Head Start and youth intervention programs.

But the waivers make for fast reading. Here's Muñoz's waiver in full: "After consultation with the Counsel to the President, I hereby waive the requirements of paragraph 2 and paragraph 3 of the Ethics Pledge of Ms. Cecilia Muñoz. I have determined that it is in the public interest to grant the waiver because Ms. Muñoz's knowledge and expertise are vital to the functioning of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. I understand that Ms. Muñoz will otherwise comply with the remainder of the pledge and with all preexisting government ethics rules."

The Obama administration told us the waivers for Lynn, Frye and Munoz are the only ones given, out of approximately 800 appointees.

But not all former lobbyists need to get a waiver to work in the Obama administration. Some apparently just need "recusals," where the former lobbyist agrees that he or she will avoid discussions related to former lobbying interests.

The White House has not said how many recusals it has granted, and it has declined to release details on its most prominent recusal, for Mark Patterson, the chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Public records show Patterson worked as a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs in 2008. Given Goldman Sachs' central role in the finance industry, it's difficult to see how the chief of the staff to the Treasury secretary could recuse himself from all discussions that affect Goldman Sachs.

For example, the Treasury Department has used tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to rescue insurance giant AIG, and Goldman Sachs is one of the firms that benefited from AIG's credit default swaps, which were a key factor in last fall's economic collapse.

Some ethics experts say a lobbyist policy needs to be flexible. They say lobbyists bring valuable expertise from outside government that can help Obama get his agenda through Congress.

And the Obama administration has set a high standard for ethics that deserves praise, said Bill Allison, senior fellow with the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. But he said the way the administration is using waivers and recusals without releasing details has muddied the issue of whether the administration is keeping its pledge.

"By trying to do this, they have made it more difficult on themselves," Allison said. "That information should really be public and publicly available."

Barack Obama Campaign Promise 240: Lobbyists working for the White House

Obama was clear in his promise that "no political appointees will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly related to their prior employer for two years." But his use of waivers and recusals to put lobbyists on the payroll has muddied his record. No means none. Promise Broken.

For a more extensive analysis of this promise, including links to the letters about the Lynn nomination, go to PolitiFact.com.

Obama skirts own ban on employing former lobbyists in White House 03/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 6:26am]

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