Watchdog group waiting for Obama to fulfill ethics pledge for online hub

Despite a campaign pledge, the Obama administration so far has failed to set up a central online hub for all of the government’s ethics information.

A review of more than 560 pages of e-mails obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that senior White House aides looked to secure funding for such a website, tentatively to be called Ethics.gov. They also hosted meetings with watchdog groups to discuss the initiative.

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But despite those efforts, the administration has not produced a website to increase government transparency.

“There is definitely a big distance from President Obama’s Ethics.gov campaign promise and what they have done so far,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation. “They are failing to live up to their promise, but their promise was aimed very high.”

On Obama’s 2008 campaign website, he pledged to “create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format.”

Producing a site with that content would require coordination across several agencies — likely including the offices of the House clerk and Senate secretary as well as the Federal Election Commission and Office of Government Ethics (OGE). It would also require a massive effort to sort through data detailing thousands of lobbyist registrations and millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Despite the size of that task, the e-mails between OGE lawyers and senior aides in the administration show a White House that was starting to examine how to put together such a website. At times, it appears the lack of detail from the original campaign promise encumbered what will be a massive endeavor.

In one March 2009 e-mail to several administration officials, Norm Eisen, the White House ethics czar, said there was “(I think) a placeholder in the budget” for the website.

But that was seemingly not enough information to move forward on the project. Later that month, in a heavily redacted chain of e-mails, Beth Noveck, the U.S. deputy chief technology officer and director of the Open Government Initiative, asked several aides for more information on the website.

“This is just the budgetary request, not the project definition. 1 page and request for money. If we don’t do it now, we can’t do it at all in FY 10 [fiscal year 2010],” Noveck wrote. “The level of detail is the equivalent, I’ve been told, of 1 powerpoint [sic] slide.”

“Sounds manageable, but how do we know what to ask for?” asked Norm Eisen, who has since been nominated as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

No e-mail responses from the other aides to Eisen’s question were included in the documents provided by OGE to The Hill.

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Several senior administration officials were looped into the e-mails concerning Ethics.gov throughout 2009. Along with Eisen and Noveck, they included Ian Bassin, a deputy associate White House counsel; Don Fox, OGE’s general counsel; and Spencer Overton, a campaign finance expert and senior Justice Department lawyer.

White House aides also met with watchdog organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation, to see how best to put together the new website, according to the e-mails. Wonderlich attended several of those meetings.

The administration was still working on the project later on, according to the e-mails from November 2009. In setting up another meeting to discuss the website, Noveck wrote that she would pass on “the notes from the web developer who met with the OGE team” and include Vivek Kundra, the U.S. chief information officer, in the discussions.

Yet despite the activity throughout the Obama administration, Ethics.gov is still not a reality. A White House aide said the website is in “active development” for next year.

“It was an extraordinarily busy and successful first year on the ethics front for the White House, OGE and the administration. Nevertheless, we are continuing to push forward new projects in year two,” said a White House aide. “Ethics.gov is one of those and is in active development.”

While not creating a single ethics website yet, Obama has made progress on several other fronts. For example, the White House has set up an online process to secure its staff’s financial disclosure forms, disclosed contacts between lobbyists and administration officials regarding the stimulus package and begun releasing White House visitor records to the public.

“They haven’t done much toward building a single site to have all this information. I think they have done very significant things on individual issues on ethics disclosure,” Wonderlich said.

To put all that information onto a single website, several different agencies will have to be working off the same page. In addition, the administration may run into legal issues by consolidating information from different agencies, which could require congressional action, according to Wonderlich.

“It means everyone will have to be working off the same assumptions about the law,” Wonderlich said.