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Politics Biden's sweeping ethics order stops short of full reform

16:18  24 january  2021
16:18  24 january  2021 Source:   washingtonexaminer.com

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President Biden signed new sweeping ethics rules, but waivers remain a loophole, and watchdog groups say the pledge stops short of full reform.

Under the new order, executive branch officials must pledge not to lobby their former agency for two years, but waivers can be issued if "it is in the public interest."

The decision falls to the Office of Management and Budget, led by Director Neera Tanden, a non-Senate confirmed appointee. Tanden, as the head of the liberal Center American Progress and its political arm, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, raised millions from Silicon Valley and Big Tech firms.

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In consult with the White House counsel, OMB can grant waivers to former and current appointees.

Many of Biden's picks have filed disclosures with the Office of Government Ethics revealing work for clients such as Palantir, Facebook, Uber, and venture capital firms focused on defense technology. Strategic consulting is distinct from lobbying, however, and much of the detail of this work remains unknown.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was paid $180,000 between July 2017 and June 2020 as a consultant for Palantir, a Silicon Valley firm specializing in data-gathering and analysis, including in areas of national security and intelligence.

The company holds large contracts with the U.S. Navy, Space Force, Defense Department, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, and the Department of Health and Human Services, and wants to grow its reach.

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According to a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the company also hopes to "become the default operating system for data across the US government."

A Biden transition official said Haines's work for Palantir "was primarily focused on the company's diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly increasing gender diversity." This involved mentoring "some of the company's remarkable young women" and advising the company on diversity and inclusion efforts, "an issue she feels passionate about and one that will be a priority of hers," this official told the Washington Examiner in January.

Haines was also both a principal and a consultant for WestExec Advisors, a firm co-founded by Biden's State Department director nominee, Antony Blinken, and was questioned by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, about her work for the firm during her confirmation hearing this week.

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Haines was asked about her work with the firm during her confirmation hearing this week. Cornyn cited a reference on the company's website, dating from July and since-deleted, that touted work "helping major American universities court donations in China without jeopardizing Pentagon-funded research grants." Haines said she had no knowledge of the work.

The Revolving Door Project and other groups urged lawmakers this week to demand that appointees provide a more exhaustive accounting of their work to the committees.

Blinken, a WestExec co-founder, said in his ethics disclosure that he had advised several companies, including Facebook, Uber, Boeing, McKinsey & Company, Blackstone, and Bank of America. A Biden transition official told the Washington Examiner earlier this month that Blinken's work with the firm largely entailed counseling companies on risk.

Blinken also holds a stake in a venture capital fund with a national security portfolio, Ridgeline Partners, whose portfolio companies include start-ups who've received Defense Department contracts, according to public disclosures. WestExec "co-founded" Ridgeline and acts as a strategic partner.

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Senators did not ask Blinken about his ties to WestExec during his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Further, not all senior appointees are required to submit public filings detailing their private sector ties.

Biden's acting Central Intelligence Agency head is David S. Cohen, another WestExec principal with ties to Ridgeline, according to an archived capture of their website. Cohen's role is not Senate-confirmed, but he will lead the agency until Congress votes to approve Biden's director nominee, Ambassador William Burns.

Haines and Blinken have filed public ethics disclosures, and neither they nor Cohen are accused of wrongdoing. Still, watchdogs want further scrutiny on Biden's top appointees' business ties.

In a letter this week, ethics oversight groups urged Biden to demand a more stringent accounting of his nominees' work for private companies and foreign governments.

"Public financial disclosures provide a fundamentally incomplete picture of appointees' sources of income and past employment," said Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, one of more than 40 groups calling for more comprehensive ethics disclosures. "Legal structures such as LLCs can help to obscure critical information, for example. Meanwhile, the forms allow appointees to describe the nature of services rendered in such vague terms as to be virtually useless from a transparency or public accountability perspective."

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Good-governance groups have praised the order but charge that a more exhaustive accounting of nominees' past work is needed.

Craig Holman of Public Citizen, another signatory to the letter, called the order "excellent," but he said Biden "could go further."

"It has become obvious that conflicts of interest often go well beyond stakes in owning property and stocks," Holman said. "Work on behalf of a corporation to help secure a major government contract may pose serious conflicts as well as other private sector work on behalf of a corporation that do not involve ownership."

Compliance remains a critical factor and requires significant resources to administer, experts said.

"This doesn't stop just because somebody has an ethics agreement," Scott Amey of the Project On Government Oversight told the Washington Examiner. "It's a daily chore to have to monitor and ensure compliance."

Hauser said concerns over government accountability are bipartisan and another reason to mandate comprehensive accounting of past endeavors.

"People ... want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that their political leaders have their best interests at heart," and disclosures help dispel "bad faith attacks or insinuation about the nature of appointees' work."

Tags: News, White House, Joe Biden, Ethics, DC, Neera Tanden, OMB, Lobbying, Antony Blinken, Avril Haines

Original Author: Katherine Doyle

Original Location: Biden's sweeping ethics order stops short of full reform

Watchdogs concerned about some Biden appointees' opaque consulting work .
A number of senior officials are joining the Biden administration after having worked in consulting firms with opaque client lists, warn ethics experts. In choosing his cabinet-level appointees and agency heads, Biden has demonstrated a preference for veterans of government service, many of whom are returning to control the levers of power after holding private-sector jobs as Washington consultants for corporate clients.

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