A human rights advocate is set to join the Obama administration four years after his status as a registered lobbyist thwarted his nomination.
President Obama late Monday announced his intent to nominate Tom Malinowski as the administration’s human rights chief.
Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, was up for the same post in 2009, but was passed over due to being a registered lobbyist, which ran afoul of Obama’s executive order on ethics.
His previous nomination became an example of the unintended consequences of barring all registered lobbyists, even those from nonprofit groups, from serving in the administration.
At the time, The New York Times questioned the rigidity of Obama’s ethics rules and published an op-ed on Malinowski titled “The Good Lobbyist” that urged Obama to make an exception.
Malinowski’s nomination should be in the clear this time around, because he hasn’t appeared in lobbying disclosure records since 2008.
Ethics experts anticipate that Malinowski — picked to be assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department — would no longer need a waiver to serve because the White House’s ban on lobbyist service only applies to those who are registered in the two years prior to an appointment.
Malinowski wasn’t the only person to run into trouble with the executive order when they were under consideration for top jobs.
In 2009, Peg Seminario with the AFL-CIO was in the running to head up the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but lost out because she was recently registered to lobby at the time.
And The Hill reported in 2011 that Larry Mirel, an expert on insurance policy, said he was not chosen to lead the National Flood Insurance Program because of the order.
Mirel wasn’t a registered lobbyist, but he had done legal work for his insurance clients. Communicating with his past clients while serving in that position could have violated the ethics order.
Other former lobbyists have found their way into the administration recently.
The most recent is Chris Jennings, once a senior healthcare adviser to former President Clinton. He will soon be joining the Obama White House to help with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
Jennings represented several clients, like the AFL-CIO and the Federation of American Hospitals, at his firm, Jennings Policy Strategies. He was last registered to lobby in 2010, however, so he wouldn’t need a waiver from Obama’s ethics order.
Last year, one of K Street’s more prominent Democratic lobbyists, Steve Ricchetti, was hired as a counselor to Vice President Biden. Ricchetti hadn’t been registered since 2008, so he also didn't need a waiver.
Other lobbyists have been granted waivers to serve in the administration despite being in violation of the two-year cooling-off period for lobbying.
In 2009, William Lynn, then a Raytheon lobbyist, was granted a waiver from the executive order and became deputy secretary at the Pentagon. Other registered advocates, like Jocelyn Frye and Cecilia Muñoz, also received waivers when they took jobs in the administration early on during Obama’s first term.
Ethics watchdogs have applauded Obama’s ethics order, but the hiring of ex-lobbyists has attracted criticism.
“The whole reason for the order was a perception issue. Hiring these ex-lobbyists doesn't really change the perception that Washington and the presidential administrations were captured by lobbyists,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center. “When you get too cute by half, it violates the spirit of the order.”
A White House spokesman said Obama has done more in the past four years to close the revolving door between the private and public sectors, including prohibiting former lobbyists from working on issues on which they lobbied.
“Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington, which we’ve done more than any administration in history,” said Eric Schultz, the White House spokesman.