Ethics pledge stymies appointee

The White House stepped in and blocked a possible appointee to head the National Flood Insurance Program in order to comply with President Obama’s tough executive order on ethics.

Under consideration for the post was Larry Mirel, a partner in Wiley Rein’s insurance practice. Though not a registered lobbyist, he has a number of clients in the insurance industry who participate in the government flood program.

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In a private e-mail sent to colleagues and obtained by The Hill, Mirel said his appointment was shut down by the White House due to the president’s executive order.

“A lawyer from the White House called me on Friday to say that they had decided not to grant a waiver from a provision in the pledge, required to be signed by all presidential appointees, that prohibits communications with former clients except in general meetings open to the public,” Mirel wrote in the e-mail. 

Mirel said he “had expressed concern early in the vetting process” that the order could hinder his work on behalf of the flood program, but that the ethics officer at the Homeland Security Department assured Mirel as long as he didn’t discuss his past work with former clients, he would be on the right side of the ethics pledge.

Nevertheless, the White House had “final authority” and disagreed with Homeland Security’s decision, according to Mirel.

“The White House ethics office has now determined that a waiver would be required and has declined to provide one,” Mirel wrote.

Obama’s executive order has attracted attention in the past because it targets K Street to fit in with the president’s campaign pledge not to hire lobbyists in his administration.

But the order says that for two years following their appointment, political appointees must not participate in any matters that could affect their former employers. That broad language includes past legal clients for lawyers as well.

“It’s frustrating,” Mirel told The Hill. “I spent a fair amount of time of going through what I needed to do. It seems like you would want someone who knows what they are doing to run the program.”

Mirel said Homeland Security officials felt they could work around his clients to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

“They were saying as long as I was careful in what did and I wasn’t doing any favors for private clients, they thought it could be done without a waiver,” Mirel said.

A White House official stressed that adhering to the executive order was key for the administration.

“We have numerous highly qualified individuals for positions in the executive branch,” said a White House official. “We implemented the most stringent ethics policy in history because we want to make sure that these jobs get done with a minimum amount of conflicts of interest.”

Mirel joined Wiley Rein in 2005. He was the District of Columbia’s Commissioner of Insurance, Securities and Banking before coming to the firm. Mirel has held other positions in Washington government and has also worked on Capitol Hill.

Mirel is not the first person to be denied a spot in the Obama administration because of the president’s executive order.

In 2009, Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety, was under consideration to become the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But Seminario lost out on the spot — irking many in the labor movement — because she registered to lobby for legislation that would provide healthcare to emergency responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Also in 2009, Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, was being considered to be the State Department’s human rights chief. But he too was passed over because he was a registered lobbyist for the advocacy group.

That led to protests from several nonprofit groups, which argued an exception should be made for public interest lobbying work.

In a January 2010 letter to the president, the groups said that the order “has yielded unintended consequences that undermine your goals of open government and broad civic participation in the public interest.” Several watchdog groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause and OMB Watch, signed on to the letter.

A waiver process is in place for the order, but it has not been used that often due to controversy. For example, senators blasted the policy in 2009 when William Lynn, a registered lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon, was granted a waiver from the order and became deputy secretary at the Pentagon.