Watchdog group sues for ex-lobbyist ethics waivers

Watchdog group sues for ex-lobbyist ethics waivers
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Watchdog group American Oversight is suing the federal government in order to obtain the ethics waivers given to ex-lobbyists who joined the Trump administration.

The waivers are required when political appointees are working directly on policies or issues for which they had advocated while on K Street. President Trump has tapped dozens of lobbyists for key posts. 

Like former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe four China strategies Trump or Biden will need to consider Largest Democratic PAC portrays Trump as strongman in bilingual Florida ad Larry Hogan's hopes MORE before him, Trump quickly drafted ethics rules that prohibited lobbyists from coming into the administration and handling the same issues for two years. 

However, exceptions could be made for some officials — if they had very little to do with a policy or could demonstrate that an extensive knowledge would help with policymaking. 

Unlike his predecessor, though, Trump is not making the waivers public.

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"President Trump has a disturbing track record of hiring lobbyists into senior jobs despite obvious conflicts of interest,” said Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight and a former State Department official in the Obama administration. 

"There is no precedent for hiding these waivers from public view. What is the Trump White House trying to hide?" 

The suit follows reports that the Trump administration is pushing back against providing the waivers to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), an independent agency in charge of ethics rules in the executive branch.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney initially denied a request from OGE Director Walter Shaub for copies of all ethics waivers by June 1.

Mulvaney said the request for information “appears to raise legal questions regarding the scope of OGE’s authorities,” in a letter written to Shaub and obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. “I therefore request that you stay the data call until these questions are resolved.”

The OGE, created after the Watergate scandal, is within its authority as an overseer of ethics policy to request the waivers.

In mid to late March, American Oversight sent open records requests for the same ethics waivers as questions about conflicts of interests surrounded some of Trump’s hires.

“The public has a right to know whether there are other Michael Flynns appointed to top jobs and making policy decisions financially benefiting their former employers," Evers said in a statement Monday.

Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser, had been paid to conduct work that may have been to the benefit of the Turkish government and had to retroactively register with the Justice Department. 

Flynn served as a foreign agent during the time he advised Trump’s presidential campaign on national security issues and moved to stop a military plan in Syria that the Turkish government opposed. He was fired in February, after misleading Vice President Pence and other senior officials about the contents of conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The legal complaint focuses on FOIA requests that American Oversight sent for all the waivers issued within eight federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. 

It’s asking the court to compel the agencies to release the documents.

A FOIA request legally requires a response within 20 working days, a deadline almost always missed by federal agencies, especially the larger ones. One of the eight agencies requested a 10-day extension.

American Oversight is also filing new FOIA requests to 21 additional agencies to mirror requests sent to them by OGE, in addition to asking agencies to release any emails or documents instructing them not to comply with the ethics agency, it said in a release.