Biden needs to institute a new era in public ethics

Biden needs to institute a new era in public ethics
© Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump world was rife with corruption; conflict of interest, for many in the current administration, is an oxymoron. Outside nouveau lobbyists with ties to the White House are making out like bandits.

I suspect corruption will be rare in the Biden administration, tough ethics requirements will be reinstated, and appearances — as well as realities — of conflicts will be taken seriously.

Still — given the president-elect's promises and the hypocrisy of some situational congressional Republican critics who were oblivious to Team Trump's transgressions — the Biden team has to be, as they say, purer than Caesar's wife, the most rigorous requirements and transparency ever. Otherwise, there will be a false equivalency, ‘everybody does it’ — unfair but an annoyance. And if K Street lobbyists are thought to be riding high, it will exacerbate tensions with the left wing.

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It's irrational to insist there should be no one from the business or lobbying communities in the Biden administration; some would be valuable. Would the left ban labor or childcare lobbyists?

The New York Times, in a series of pieces, has fired a warning shot about possible appearance problems for nominees and how the K Street crowd already is starting to rake in the bucks from vested interests based on their connections to the new administration.

Republicans will try to make hay of this, starting with Secretary of State designate Tony Blinken, who led a consulting firm, WestExec, and advised an investment firm, Pine Island, that in the last several years represented a number of wealthy interests. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas) warned the Senate may not confirm anyone who doesn't reveal their previous clients. After hiding it for four years, it's good that the Texas Republican has discovered his public integrity.

Blinken, a man of impeccable integrity, says he's asking previous clients to waive any non-disclosure agreements. Any that don't, he should release them anyway. Let them try to sue. There is no justification for these NDAs (from entities who're beseeching the government): No one is asking for trade secrets, just their identities.

Biden needs to establish rules that go beyond Obama's tough ethics requirements, which were gutted by Trump.

Increase restrictions on lobbying after leaving government; require any top official to record any and all contacts or conversations with anyone seeking governmental assistance. A current K Street scam is to de-register as a lobbyist — let others do the dirty work — and parade as an above-the-board consultant. It's often a distinction without much difference.

There should be an outright ban on top officials dealing with any lobbyists or consultants representing foreign governments. Those interests are advocated by their ambassadors and embassies, their views are known by assistant secretaries.

More than insider worries may be those outsiders with connections cashing in. There were more than a few influence-seekers during the Trump years, with little expertise in Washington, who hauled in millions based on connections to Trump.

There already are signs that Democrats, with expertise, are seeking to capitalize on Biden connections. Anita DunnAnita DunnAides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims White House pitches Democrats on messaging strategy for Biden agenda White House: Clean energy tax credits, electricity standard are priorities for reconciliation package MORE, a top Biden campaign official is returning to her firm, SDK Knickerbocker; its website hails that, citing a story calling her "Mastermind Behind Biden's No Drama Approach;" while noting she's the only top Biden adviser not joining him in the White House — the linked article’s subhead adds, "but she'll still stay close." Translation: If you want to influence this administration, here we are.

Or take the example of Joe Lockhart, once President Clinton's press secretary. He joined a lobbying firm this summer (noting later it was just a "happy coincidence" that Biden won). After the election, the firm he joined partnered with Robert Stryk, a non-entity in Washington until Trump, for whom he'd been a minor supporter. Stryk’s specialty was representing foreign despots and other shady figures, including an ally of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Reportedly he raked in more than $10 million from foreign clients in the past three years. Now that his benefactor is leaving town, he's partnering with a Democrat. That's the way Washington works — and whether it's called the “deep state” or “K Street corruption,” it's what many Americans hate.

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Democrats have a couple of problems. One, they correctly believe the Trump administration was so unethical they should look good with any comparison. Fact is, while that may be true, it won't matter.

The other is it's not uncommon for Democrats to believe their motives are less selfish — so they should be held to different standards. In 2009, I was running the Bloomberg Washington bureau, and we were writing a story that a prospective top appointment had made a bunch of money from a big Wall Street firm. He called to plead it really wasn't a story because I knew he was honest. I did, he is, and we ran the story.

I really don't want Anita Dunn or Joe Lockhart to be on food stamps. I just want the public to know anything they're doing that connects to the Biden administration and taxpayers.

As well as the new president, the media — which still will have its hands full with evolving Trump scandals — needs to be vigilant. The Times is doing good stuff; others need to step up.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.