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Trump’s Ethics Waivers Grant Ex-Lobbyists Wide Influence

Ethics watchdogs, some lobbyists decry movement between K Street and administration

Supporters greet Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after he spoke at a rally February 19, 2016 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images file photo)
Supporters greet Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after he spoke at a rally February 19, 2016 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images file photo)

The batch of ethics waivers released by the White House offered more evidence of what everyone already knew: The Trump administration, despite pledges to “drain the swamp,” has embraced the revolving door between government and the private sector.

The waivers are more sweeping in scope than those of the Obama administration, and reveal that former lobbyists and other senior officials may freely take part in meetings and decisions that affect their former clients and onetime employers.

Ethics watchdogs and even some lobbyists have decried the easy movement between K Street and the Trump administration. They say they worry that it could lead to government officials putting private interests ahead of the public and could also further erode public perception of what most lobbyists actually do.

“If they’re seen as catering to their former clients, then people are going to say, ‘It’s Washington for sale and it’s those damn lobbyists who are selling it,’” said Paul Miller, a lobbyist with Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, who serves as president of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics. “We are going to be the ones who are demonized.”

The White House’s list of waivers released late Wednesday included one for Michael Catanzaro, a special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy, whose former clients at the CGCN Group included Noble Energy and MasterCard Worldwide. His role and those of other former lobbyists were already well-known before this week’s disclosure.

Shahira Knight, a former Ways and Means staffer and onetime lobbyist for Fidelity Investments, also received a waiver, as did other former lobbyists. Knight is now special assistant to the president for tax and retirement policy, and has been involved in meetings on Capitol Hill about a tax overhaul.

Other senior officials including Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus, who were not registered lobbyists before joining the administration, received waivers so they can weigh in on issues that affect their former clients or employers. Priebus, for example, is allowed take part in meetings and communications involving the Republican National Committee, where he was chairman.

The Trump administration also offered blanket exemptions for officials who previously worked at Jones Day, a law firm that was once the professional home for White House counsel Donald McGahn and other administration officials.

“The White House waivers late Wednesday permit an oil and gas lobbyist to help devise energy policy, insurance lobbyists to work on a range of retirement and financial regulatory matters, and corporate lawyers to engage with their former colleagues,” said Robert Weissman, president of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen.

He noted that the raft of waivers “vastly exceeds the number issued in the early months of the Obama administration and, more importantly, authorizes conflicts not permitted” during the last administration. The waivers show an “utter disregard for ethical standards” in the Trump White House, Weissman said.

The waivers exempt officials from aspects of the Trump administration’s Jan. 28 ethics executive order that kept intact many ethics obligations from the Obama administration.

Obama granted a handful of waivers during his eight years in office to allow recently registered former lobbyists to serve in his administration. But the Trump team said it would not maintain that restriction. The Obama administration across all agencies granted some 70 ethics waivers total, according to The New York Times.

More to come

The Trump White House alone, so far, has made public 14 ethics waivers, but some of those apply to multiple people — something that the Obama administration did not do, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen.

The batch of waivers released Wednesday did not include those for officials outside of the White House across executive branch agencies and departments, though the administration may make those public as soon as Thursday, a deadline set by the Office of Government Ethics. The Trump administration initially had pushed back on the OGE’s request but later decided to comply.

The purpose of such restrictions is to prevent “regulatory capture” of executive branch agencies that set the rules for industry players, Holman said. If government officials do favors for their former employers or clients, then that offers a way for businesses to “capture the regulatory agency and literally render it useless,” Holman added.

Miller and other K Street denizens have noted that the Trump administration is smart not to block recently registered lobbyists from joining, but still, they worry that lobbyists’ reputation will suffer if the White House flouts its own rules.

“Over last few years, we’ve been doing a better job of portraying what lobbyists actually do, but these types of situations are going to throw us right back into the era of Jack Abramoff,” said Miller, referring to the mid-2000s scandal that led to an overhaul of lobbying laws.

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