Watchdog files ethics complaint against Trump's DHS pick

Watchdog files ethics complaint against Trump's DHS pick
© Greg Nash

A watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint alleging that Kirstjen Nielsen, President Trump's nominee for Homeland Security secretary, has been guided through her Senate confirmation process by a consultant representing clients with business before the Department of Homeland Security.

The complaint, sent to White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' Trump's tirades, taunts and threats are damaging our democracy MORE and Office of Government Ethics acting Director David Apol on Monday, expresses concern with Nielsen's decision to accept the services of Thad Bingel, a former lobbyist and co-founder of the Command Group, a lobbying firm that provides "full spectrum solutions related to safety, security, and intelligence."

"It appears that Nielsen has been guided through the confirmation process by an individual whose clients have hundreds of millions in contracts before the agency she has been nominated to lead," the complaint reads.

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"This implicates several potential violations of federal laws and regulations. It also offends common sense notions of the meaning of conflicts of interest."

That Bingel is helping guide Nielsen through her Senate confirmation could mean that, if she becomes Homeland Security secretary, she could direct government contracts toward the consultant's clients, according to the Campaign Legal Center complaint.

"The gratitude that Nielsen will inevitably feel towards Bingel as a result of his valuable gift of personal services will afford him preferential access on behalf of his clients, both now and in the future," it reads.

"Their work together preparing for the Senate confirmation hearing also affords Bingel extensive access to Nielsen, something any lobbyist with interests affected by DHS would desire to have."

Nielsen, who currently serves as Kelly's deputy in the White House, was nominated to head the Homeland Security Department last month.  

It is not unusual for executive branch nominees to be guided through confirmations by unpaid consultants — colloquially called "sherpas" — during presidential transitions. In fact, Bingel and Nielsen helped steer Kelly through his confirmation to serve as Homeland Security secretary earlier this year.

The Washington Post reported Thursday, however, that it is unusual for a nominee to receive help from an outside consultant once an administration has installed legislative political appointees. 

“It’s highly unusual that you would have someone leading confirmation preparations from outside the government, especially after the administration has been in place almost a year,” John Cohen, a former security and intelligence official, told the Post.

Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, told the Post in a statement that receiving help from an outside consultant was not unusual or inappropriate.

“There’s nothing inappropriate or new about an individual volunteering their time to help prepare a nominee for the Senate confirmation process,” he said.