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Departing White House ethics czar sees no let-up in drive for transparency

Norm Eisen, the outgoing White House ethics czar, said he has seen no let-up in the Obama administration’s push for a more ethical and transparent executive branch despite a recent shuffling in policy responsibilities. 

Watchdog groups have been worried about the departure of Eisen from the administration. Beginning last year, his portfolio of ethics and government reform fell under the oversight of White House Counsel Bob Bauer, who in private practice often clashed with watchdog groups over campaign finance law.

“We have had an orderly and a positive transition. My perception is the transition has been well-received by the independent watchdogs,” Eisen told The Hill. “I think it has been a success. The new team will bring these issues to new heights.”

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Recess-appointed over the holiday break by President Obama as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, Eisen is leaving Washington in the near future. He reflected on his two years working in the White House in an interview with The Hill this week.

Eisen has been a key figure since the early days of the Obama administration. The primary author of the executive order that slowed the revolving door between K Street and government, Eisen also helped craft a number of policies designed to restrict lobbyists’ influence and release more government information to the public.

Noting that “you grade by the outcomes,” Eisen said he was “very proud” to have served in the White House.

“I think we have achieved at the highest level, in that government service focuses on the public interest, rather than the special interests or personal interests. I think we are right up there,” Eisen said.

Eisen has often antagonized lobbyists by defending White House policies aimed at keeping away K Street. The Obama administration banned lobbyists from serving on federal advisory committees, for example, and limited lobbying for stimulus funds.

Eisen also worked on Data.gov, a website that releases reams of government data on everything from the Food and Drug Administration’s product recalls to toxic chemical releases.

Eisen was also behind the White House’s decision — seen as groundbreaking at the time — to release visitor records on a monthly basis.

“While we are not getting daily headlines about the contents of the visitor records, that information has become a part of the day-to-day interaction between the government and the American people, including through the media,” Eisen said. “It’s a standard part of reporting now on the White House that folks go look at the visitor records, and we think that’s healthy.”

Eisen was a member of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and is a friend of Obama’s from his days at Harvard Law School. Public interest groups considered him a valuable ally due to his close relationship with the president.

He also shared many of those groups’ values. A litigation partner at the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, where he handled white-collar investigations, Eisen was the co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — now one of the more aggressive ethics watchdog groups in town.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said Eisen “did a tremendous job on government reform issues” but added he has faith in Bauer and others in the White House to handle the president’s ethics agenda. 

“I don’t have a problem with the new structure,” Wertheimer said. “I have confidence in Bob Bauer’s commitment to the president’s agenda in this area.”

Eisen was first nominated to the ambassador post in June 2010, but his nomination stalled in the Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved him in September, but Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks Trump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October MORE (R-Iowa) placed a hold on the nomination shortly thereafter.

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According to a statement entered by Grassley into the Congressional Record at the time, Grassley objected to Eisen’s nomination due to his role in the firing of Inspector General Gerald Walpin of the Corporation for National and Community Service and “his lack of candor about that matter when questioned by congressional investigators.”

Walpin claimed he was fired for investigating an Obama political ally, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, for allegedly misusing federal funds. Earlier this month, Walpin lost his appeal in his wrongful-firing lawsuit in a federal appeals court.  

Eisen declined to comment on Grassley’s hold on his nomination. The White House has strongly disagreed with Grassley's allegations.

Eisen said there are some big challenges ahead for the Obama administration. He cited ongoing concerns over campaign finance law in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year, as well as the need to move whistleblower protections through Congress.

“I think there remains critical work to be done,” Eisen said.