Watchdogs fear loss of new ethics czar

Public interest groups hope the White House appoints another ethics czar if the current officeholder leaves, thereby institutionalizing a position President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats HuffPost says president's golfing trips to Trump properties cost taxpayers over 0 million in travel and security expenses Support for same-sex marriage dips 4 points from 2018 high: Gallup MORE created.

Speculation has been rife that Norm Eisen, the president’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, will be nominated for U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. A White House spokesman declined to comment on press reports saying so and Eisen did not respond to messages asking for comment.


Eisen is the first person to hold the position, which Obama created in the White House Counsel’s office. Watchdogs worry that if he leaves, priorities for the administration may shift away from campaign finance and ethics.

Reform advocates said they would want the White House to fill Eisen’s seat as soon as he was confirmed and headed off to Prague.

“Obviously, we would very much hope that this position would be maintained and filled by someone who is just as committed to the reform agenda,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, agreed, saying the White House should find a replacement. “I sincerely hope and expect that Norm Eisen’s career change in no way signals a shift in priorities for the White House,” he said.

Nevertheless, if Eisen were to leave his White House post, it would be a heavy blow to reform groups who considered him their biggest champion in the administration.

Wertheimer said if the press reports were true, Eisen’s exit would be an “enormous loss to those of us who care about campaign finance and ethics issues.”

“He had a designated position in the White House assigned to these issues. It has been a combination of the position he was given where he had a relationship with the president and the commitment that Norm had,” Wertheimer said. “I don’t know if we ever had a person like that before, either the position or the individual.”

Eisen knows Obama from their time together at Harvard Law School and fundraised and worked on the president’s 2008 campaign as well as the administration’s transition team. A partner at Zuckerman Spaeder for 17 years handling white-collar and congressional investigations, Eisen also is the co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

Eisen was responsible for an executive order signed by Obama on his first full day in office designed to slow the revolving door between government and K Street. The White House lawyer has also been involved in opening up White House visitor records to the public, limiting lobbying on the stimulus package and setting up the administration’s transparency initiative.

He is also the White House’s point man regarding the legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, working on a bill with Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to require more disclosure of corporate campaign spending.
Watchdog representatives don’t see an ambassador nomination for Eisen affecting the administration’s ability to move legislation on the court ruling through Congress.

“Not at all. He has to be nominated, confirmed,” said Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “He’s going nowhere soon.”

Nominations can take months to move through the Senate and Eisen could continue to work at the White House while his reported nomination is under consideration.

“He is not acting like a lame duck,” said Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight. “He is so personally invested in these reform efforts that he would make sure whoever comes in behind him would be as engaged as he is.”

K Street often chafed at Eisen’s initiatives, especially those directed at limiting or banning lobbyists in the federal government. But Dave Wenhold, the president of the American League of Lobbyists who has sparred with Eisen frequently over the past year, said the White House lawyer is “a solid professional and will represent President Obama and the country well.”

Like the watchdog groups, Wenhold said he hoped Obama would find a replacement for Eisen if he leaves Washington.

“We welcome and have advocated for the opportunity to work with the office and the White House to make our political process better. I hope the president appoints another ethics counsel, because few things in this world are more important than ethics,” Wenhold said.