White House official reprimanded for consulting with Google colleagues

The White House has reprimanded one of its Web chiefs for violating ethics rules and inappropriately consulting with his former colleagues at Google.

Deputy Web Chief Andrew McLaughlin used his personal Gmail address to communicate with former Google colleagues about key technology issues confronting the administration and the Internet search giant, including net neutrality and Web privacy, according to Consumer Watchdog, which obtained e-mails sent by McLaughlin through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren consequently reprimanded McLaughlin last week, according to a spokesman for the office.

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However, OSTP's Rick Weiss later added McLaughlin's communications were "incidental" and had "no influence on policy decisions within the federal government."

Specifically, the deputy web chief's conversations over Gmail defied an ethics pledge instituted by President Barack Obama and signed by McLaughlin following his Senate confirmation, which prohibits new White House employees from directly engaging their former employers and clients for at least two years.

McLaughlin also infringed on rules that require White House employees to conduct all official business using only their federal e-mail accounts, primarily to ensure the messages are properly archived. The spokesman added that McLaughlin has since archived the "limited number" of personal e-mails he sent to Google staffers by e-mailing the private communications to his White House inbox.

"Andrew regrets these violations and has taken steps to ensure they do not occur again, including an in-depth review of the Pledge and Federal ethics laws," Weiss told Hillicon Valley on Monday.

Concern that McLaughlin may have violated federal archiving and ethics rules first arose in April, upon the debut of Google Buzz. The new social network, which automatically adds a user's recent contacts to his or her subscriber list, reflected that McLaughlin had communicated in the past with top Google staffers.

The link was not totally surprising, given McLaughlin's previous position as Google's head of global public policy.

But after seeing McLaughlin's contacts on Google Buzz, Consumer Watchdog filed a FOIA request for his e-mails, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned McLaughlin's conduct in his own, separate missive.

OSTP delivered the e-mails on Monday, according to their e-mail's time stamp. Consumer Watchdog was still parsing those messages later in the afternoon, but a spokesman said his group believes "this was a serious breach of policy by Andrew McLaughlin and warrants more than a mere slap on the wrist." Consumer Watchdog has long opposed McLaughlin, even since the days of his Senate confirmation.

Most of the messages obtained by Hillicon Valley are addressed to Vint Cerf, Google's Chief Internet Evangelist who also works in the Commerce Department as an adviser to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. Those e-mails, however, did not violate the president's ethics pledge, as Cerf also works for the federal government.

But some of the e-mails might still give White House opponents some political fodder. For example, Cerf, in one message, asks McLaughlin whether the Obama administration had abandoned net neutrality as a policy priority. "Don’t be silly," notes McLaughlin, adding: "No one’s backing away from anything.”

McLaughlin also discussed policy matters in an unofficial capacity with other former Google colleagues -- especially Alan Davidson, the company's director of U.S. Public Policy.

In one exchange, Davidson alerts McLaughlin to possible fallout from his remarks on net neutrality. Later, the company offers to go to bat for McLaughlin, promising to "tee up" the Open Internet Coalition -- of which Google is a chief member -- to defend the Web chief's remarks.

The conversation ends when Davidson writes: "Update on this -- haven't seen anything run yet. We and a few OIC folks talked with reporters. It's possible that killed it, which is probably driving [AT&T] crazy."

In other instances, however, McLaughlin asserts his independence. TechPresident, which also obtained a copy of McLaughlin's e-mail records on Monday, discovered the Web chief at least once turned down the opportunity to wade into a Google Earth dispute. He writes: "Norbert, in my current position, I'm recused from anything having to do with Google, so I'll leave it to you and Vint to sort this out. :)"

(This post was updated at 5:30 p.m.)

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