OPINION | Once a lobbyist, always a lobbyist — even with White House ethics waiver
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We are at a pivotal moment in history, living through a series of events that haven’t happened since 1974. Forty-three years ago articles of impeachment were filed against President Richard Nixon, a man loved by many at the time. Later that year President Nixon resigned. Nixon’s resignation came during a time when the facts and details of the Watergate and “missing minutes” scandals were becoming so apparent that no amount of public relations could spin them.

The facts, and not the person, were what mattered.

Following the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (EIGA). The purpose of the act was to create reforms that would prevent a second Watergate and encourage integrity from federal employees.

One of the requirements enacted by the EIGA is annual financial disclosure by high-ranking federal employees. This disclosure includes assets, investments, liens, and salaries of the public servant and their spouse. Their purpose is to ensure that these public servants have no conflicts of interest between their personal lives and their professional duties.

These disclosures also help build trust between the government and the public. That trust is broken when employees use ethics waivers to exempt themselves from conflict of interest laws and the transparency that the public asks of them. Ethics waivers are granted when it is believed an employee’s value outweighs their conflict of interest. They are only granted when an employee has a conflict of interest.

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Employees having conflicts of interest and being granted a waiver is not in itself a problem. The public must look at why the employee was given a waiver. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) employs a number of research scientists. Many of these scientists come from the private sector where they worked for, and possibly invested in, pharmaceutical companies. In such a case, these scientists might receive ethics waivers, thus allowing them to work with NIH.

Had these scientists not received ethics waivers, they would not be able to work for the federal government nor contribute to NIH’s public research. This would do nothing but hurt scientific progress and the American people.

Scientists, however, are not the only federal employees who receive ethics waivers. The current administration has hired several ex-lobbyists and advisers and granted them ethics waivers.

These waivers allow officials like Stephen Bannon to contact and work with his former employer, Breitbart. Ethics law normally requires that Mr. Bannon not contact his previous employer for a period of two years starting from the time he began public service. This restriction makes sense, since there is no need for a White House strategist to be communicating directly with a news agency. However, due to his ethics waiver this restriction no longer applies to him.

A worse scenario, in this author’s opinion, is when ethics waivers are granted to ex-lobbyists. Think back to the old fox in the henhouse adage. You, the federal government, protect your henhouse, the public’s interests, from a group of foxes who relentlessly search it for weak points. Eventually, you realize that you need help and hire a second person to guard the henhouse. A fox is the last person you would want to hire. As a fox is a fox, and a fox can do the most damage once inside the henhouse.

An ex-lobbyist is a lobbyist; and much like a fox, they do the most damage once inside the White House. An ex-lobbyist working for the government will have an agenda, whether implicit or explicit. By granting ex-lobbyists ethics waivers, you are giving them free reign over the very thing they wanted.

The public can infer two things by the granting of these waivers: those officials have conflicts of interest and their intentions may not be in the public’s best interest.

Walter Shaub, outgoing Director of the Office of Government Ethics, stated: “I can’t know what their intention is. I know that the effect is that there’s an appearance that the businesses are profiting (from this administration).” Shaub’s last day as the nation’s chief watchdog is Tuesday and he has made a number of recommendations to strengthen the ethics office. After all, the appearance of conflicts of interest matters as much as actual conflicts.

Shahira Knight is a former tax lobbyist who is now a tax policy advisor in the White House. Knight was granted an ethics waiver allowing her to work on tax policy even though she was a registered lobbyist. Tax lobbyists are why nearly all Americans must pay to file their taxes. H&R Block and Intuit, the makers of TurboTax, spent over $5 million in 2016 lobbying on legislation. The lobbying efforts of H&R Block, Intuit, and tax lobbyists like Knight is one of the reasons why the IRS does not offer prefilled tax forms. Whether Knight has financial conflicts is moot. She simply should not have been granted a waiver, because of the implication.

Michael Catanzaro, a former energy lobbyist, now works on regulations and policies that affect his former clients. Catanzaro, per a White House insider, is considered to have “the most influential domestic energy policy position within the White House.” Once again, the implication that Catanzaro influences policy for his former clients is all that matters. Because, to the public, appearances are everything.

Integrity and honesty are words we should be able to use to describe our public officials and our government. This should be a government that federal employees would be proud to be a part of, that truly represents the public’s best interests. A government that the people can trust.

Trust in government comes from transparency and transparency comes from honesty. When public officials use waivers to avoid conflict of interest laws, they are not being transparent. Our media and public officials do a disservice to the public when they focus on a person’s personality rather than the truthfulness of their statements. Integrity, ethics, and honesty; these are three things that every government should have regardless of its ideas, beliefs, or the party in power.

RJ Stieger is an ethics coordinator for the Assistant Secretary for Administration's operating division of the Department of Health and Human Services. Before transitioning into his ethics role he served as a management analyst for the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Program Support of HHS.


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