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Trump Administration Gives Ethics Waivers to Ex-Lobbyists

President pledged to limit influence of lobbyists during his campaign

President Donald Trump pledged to limit the influence of lobbyists during the 2016 campaign. But  ethics waivers have been provided to a number of ex-lobbyists now serving in government roles.  (McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump pledged to limit the influence of lobbyists during the 2016 campaign. But  ethics waivers have been provided to a number of ex-lobbyists now serving in government roles.  (McNamee/Getty Images)

A fresh batch of ethics waivers made public Wednesday offers new insight into the roles that ex-lobbyists and other one-time industry representatives have taken in the Trump administration to shape health care, immigration and other policy matters.

President Donald Trump pledged on the campaign trail that he would limit the influence of lobbyists, and he issued an executive order that would prohibit them from working on their recent client matters while serving in the executive branch. But the waivers allow them to override the official policy and to weigh in on policy measures that affect clients they had within the past two years.

Lance Leggitt, a former lobbyist at the firm Baker Donelson, for example, now serves as chief of staff at the Health and Human Services Department. “Granting this limited waiver will allow Mr. Leggitt to freely carry out the full responsibilities of his office rather than requiring him to continue to recuse from particular matters on which he lobbied,” wrote White House Counsel Donald McGahn in an April memo.

Leggitt’s registered lobbying clients in 2016 included the Arthroscopy Association of North America and Arriva Medical, among others, according to disclosures filed with Congress.

The Trump administration also offered a waiver of its ethics pledge to Brian Callanan because of his brief tenure with the firm Cooper & Kirk, which has clients involved in housing finance litigation. Callanan, Treasury’s deputy general counsel, may now “fully participate in policy matters related to housing finance reform,” the waiver states, adding that he has no financial stake in the issue.

The Office of Government Ethics — which requested documents concerning any waivers granted between May 1, 2016 and April 30, 2017 — made the files public Wednesday.

The documents followed a previous batch from the administration last week that detailed ethics waivers for White House employees. Those waivers, more sweeping in scope than those of the Obama administration, revealed that former lobbyists, such as presidential advisers Michael Catanzaro and Shahira Knight, may freely take part in meetings and decisions that affect their former clients and one-time employers.

Robert Weissman, president of the liberal group Public Citizen, said that based on the two batches of ethics waivers, “conflicts of interest and revolving door problems are pervasive in the thinly staffed administration.”

Many of the documents included in OGE’s Wednesday release were for officials from the Obama administration, including for then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who had financial interests in Canadian companies.

Other Trump administration waivers included one for Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly for his former work on behalf of the government of Australia. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, did not lobby for the country but instead served as a senior course mentor to the Australian Defense Joint Task Force Commanders. He received travel benefits and an honorarium for the government, his ethics waiver states.

Most executive branch agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense and Transportation — did not report having granted waivers, according to the OGE documents.

Ethics watchdogs said the lack of additional waivers from the Trump administration raised new questions.

“We don’t know whether other waivers should have been granted, or if the vast number of conflicted officials in the administration are following recusal standards that avoid the need for waivers, or if the administration just hasn’t gotten around to doing enough actual work to require waivers,” Weissman said in a statement.

It’s difficult to compare the number of waivers between the Obama and Trump administrations. Obama did not allow any lobbyists who had been registered in the prior two years to serve in his administration without a waiver. His administration granted a handful of such waivers. All told, the Obama administration granted about 70 ethics and conflicts waivers, according to OGE data.

The Trump administration has now made public about 25 waivers, though some cover multiple people, such as any former employees of the Jones Day law firm, McGahn’s former employer.

“The pledge is meaningless at this point, in my humble opinion,” said Paul Miller, a lobbyist with Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, who serves as president of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics.