Dem lawmakers demand review of Education Department ethics program over official tied to for-profit colleges

Dem lawmakers demand review of Education Department ethics program over official tied to for-profit colleges
© Greg Nash

A pair of Democratic lawmakers are demanding a review of the Education Department's ethics program, according to a letter obtained by The Hill on Thursday. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiCollege should profit students and taxpayers — even at for-profit schools Overnight Health Care: Oversight chair plans to call drug executives to testify on costs | Biden airs anti-'Medicare for All' video | House panel claims Juul deliberately targeted kids House panel claims Juul deliberately targeted children, teens MORE (D-Ill.) sent the demands after an ABC News report revealed that a top Education official who was hired from the for-profit college industry helped roll back regulations put in place to protect students from being defrauded by predatory colleges. 

"A May 2018 report by ABC News revealed that Mr. (Robert) Eitel played a more central role than previously indicated in the Department’s decision to delay the enforcement of borrower defense and gainful employment, and raised questions about whether key Department officials have provided full and complete information to Congress," Warren and Krishnamoorthi wrote in a letter to the department's inspector general.

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Under the department's ethics laws, Eitel is not allowed to work on a "particular matter involving specific parties that are directly and substantially related to former employers."

ABC's report noted that Eitel was hired by the Trump administration last year following a four-year career as a for-profit college executive.

After he started at the department, Eitel helped the administration suspend an Obama-era policy known as "borrower defense to repayment." The rule made it easier for students to file for debt relief after taking out large loan payment based on fraudulent claims by for-profit colleges. 

Eitel reportedly handed out "borrower defense" talking points to aides, edited background documents and signed off on the delay notice, according to documents obtained by ABC.

The regulations were not implemented, however, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosCollege should profit students and taxpayers — even at for-profit schools On The Money: Trump, in reversal, says he's not looking at tax cuts | Trump calls himself 'chosen one' to fight China on trade | CBO finds spending deal to add .7T to deficit Trump orders elimination of student loan debt for thousands of disabled veterans MORE has tasked the department with writing a "new regulation that will treat students, institutions, and taxpayers fairly."

Agency ethics officials contend that Eitel's role in the policy is not a violation of ethics laws, provided he did not participate in the adjudication of claims filed against any of his past employers.

But the Democratic lawmakers disagree. 

"We are deeply troubled that Mr. Eitel's questionable compliance with federal ethics rules, including his apparently misleading testimony to Congress, signal a critical breakdown in federal ethics at the Department of Education, which requires urgent attention and remedy," Warren and Krishnamoorthi wrote.

Warren and Krishnamoorthi went on to question Eitel's potential involvement in another Obama-era regulation that penalized institutions with unreasonably high debt-to-earnings ratios, known as the "gainful employment" rule.

In the letter, the two ask the inspector general to investigate Eitel's involvement in both rules.  

"The members of Congress asked the Department IG to examine the entire federal ethics program at the Department to prevent other instances of staff with conflicts of interest influencing policy that impacts millions of students and borrowers — and to also inspect closely Mr. Eitel's involvement in the gainful employment and borrower defense rules given the new evidence," they wrote.