Sunday, September 23, 2018
Politics

With Trump appointees, a raft of potential conflicts and 'no transparency'

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is populating the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.

The potential conflicts are arising across the executive branch, according to an analysis of recently released financial disclosures, lobbying records and interviews with current and former ethics officials by the New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica.

In at least two cases, the appointments may have already led to violations of the administration's own ethics rules. But evaluating if and when such violations have occurred has become almost impossible because the administration is secretly issuing waivers to the rules.

One such case involves Michael Catanzaro, who serves as the top White House energy adviser. Until late last year, he was working as a lobbyist for major industry clients such as Devon Energy of Oklahoma, an oil and gas company, and Talen Energy of Pennsylvania, a coal-burning electric utility, as they fought Obama-era environmental regulations, including the landmark Clean Power Plan. Now, he is handling some of the same matters on behalf of the federal government.

Another involves Chad Wolf, who spent the past several years lobbying to secure funding for the Transportation Security Administration to spend millions of dollars on a new carry-on luggage screening device. He is now chief of staff at that agency — as the device is being tested and evaluated for possible purchase by agency staff.

This revolving door of lobbyists and government officials is not new in Washington. Both parties make a habit of it.

But the Trump administration is more vulnerable to conflicts than the prior administration, particularly after the president eliminated an ethics provision that prohibits lobbyists from joining agencies they lobbied in the prior two years. The White House also announced Friday that it would keep its visitors' logs secret, discontinuing the release of information on corporate executives, lobbyists and others who enter, often to try to influence federal policy.

Trump's appointees are also far wealthier and have more complex financial holdings and private-sector ties than officials hired at the start of the Obama administration, according to an Office of Government Ethics analysis the White House has made public. This creates a greater chance they might have conflicts related to investments or former clients, which could force them to sell off assets, recuse themselves or seek a waiver.

"The White House takes its ethics pledge and federal conflict of interest rules very seriously," a White House statement said. "The White House requires all of its employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance and has aggressively required employees to recuse or divest where the law requires."

The Trump administration's overhaul of personnel lays the groundwork for sweeping policy changes. The president has vowed to unwind some of the Obama administration's signature regulatory initiatives, from Wall Street rules to environmental regulations, and he has installed a class of former corporate influencers to lead the push. Administration supporters argue that appointees with corporate ties can inject a new level of sophistication into the federal bureaucracy and help the economy grow. Efforts to trim regulations in some areas have attracted bipartisan support.

But in several cases, officials in the Trump administration now hold the jobs they targeted as lobbyists or lawyers in the past two years.

Trump White House officials had more than 300 recent corporate clients and employers, including Apple, the hedge fund Citadel and the insurance titan Anthem, according to a Times analysis of financial disclosures. And there are more than 40 former lobbyists in the White House and the broader federal government.

Walter M. Shaub Jr. is director of the Office of Government Ethics, which advises federal agencies to help them and their employees — including the White House — comply with federal ethics laws, such as a prohibition on using a government post to personally profit.

He said that Trump's ethics executive order in late January eliminated a requirement, first adopted by President Barack Obama, that executive branch appointees not accept jobs in agencies they recently lobbied. That weakened standards applying to approximately 4,000 hires.

Trump also made it easier for former lobbyists in the government to get waivers that would let them take up matters that could benefit former clients.

Previously, these waivers were given only under a narrow set of circumstances and had to be filed and explained in an annual report for public inspection, Shaub said. The waivers were also previously posted on the Government Ethics website. None have been posted since Trump became president, as sharing them is no longer required.

"There's no transparency, and I have no idea how many waivers have been issued," Shaub said, adding he could not comment on any individual matter until a complaint was filed and investigated.

The granting of such waivers, he said, has become "a political decision, which means career government ethics officials should not get involved in waivers under the new executive order."

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