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With Trump Appointees, a Raft of Potential Conflicts and ‘No Transparency’ - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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WASHINGTON — President Trump is populating the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.

The potential conflicts are arising across the executive branch, according to an analysis of recently released financial disclosures, lobbying records and interviews with current and former ethics officials by The New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica.

In at least two cases, the appointments may have already led to violations of the administration’s own ethics rules. But evaluating if and when such violations have occurred has become almost impossible because the Trump administration is secretly issuing waivers to the rules.

One such case involves Michael Catanzaro, who serves as the top White House energy adviser. Until late last year, he was working as a lobbyist for major industry clients such as Devon Energy of Oklahoma, an oil and gas company, and Talen Energy of Pennsylvania, a coal-burning electric utility, as they fought Obama-era environmental regulations, including the landmark Clean Power Plan. Now, he is handling some of the same matters on behalf of the federal government.

Another case involves Chad Wolf, who spent the past several years lobbying to secure funding for the Transportation Security Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new carry-on luggage screening device. He is now chief of staff at that agency — at the same time as the device is being tested and evaluated for possible purchase by agency staff.

There are other examples. At the Labor Department, two officials joined the agency from the K Street lobbying corridor, leaving behind jobs where they fought some of the Obama administration’s signature labor rules, including a policy requiring financial advisers to act in a client’s best interest when providing retirement advice.

This revolving door of lobbyists and government officials is not new in Washington. Both parties make a habit of it.

But the Trump administration is more vulnerable to conflicts than the prior administration, particularly after the president eliminated an ethics provision that prohibits lobbyists from joining agencies they lobbied in the prior two years.

The White House also announced on Friday that it would keep its visitors’ logs secret, discontinuing the release of information on corporate executives, lobbyists and others who enter the complex, often to try to influence federal policy. The changes have drawn intense criticism from government ethics advocates across the city.

Mr. Trump’s appointees are also far wealthier and have more complex financial holdings and private-sector ties than officials hired at the start of the Obama administration, according to an Office of Government Ethics analysis that the White House has made public. This creates a greater chance that they might have conflicts related to investments or former clients, which could force them to sell off assets, recuse themselves or seek a waiver.

A White House spokeswoman, Sarah H. Sanders, declined repeated requests by The Times to speak with Stefan C. Passantino, the White House lawyer in charge of the ethics policy. Instead, the White House provided a written statement that did not address any of the specific questions about potential violations The Times had identified.

“The White House takes its ethics pledge and federal conflict of interest rules very seriously,” the statement said. “The White House requires all of its employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance and has aggressively required employees to recuse or divest where the law requires.”

The Trump administration’s overhaul of personnel lays the groundwork for sweeping policy changes. The president has vowed to unwind some of the Obama administration’s signature regulatory initiatives, from Wall Street rules to environmental regulations, and he has installed a class of former corporate influencers to lead the push.

Administration supporters argue that appointees with corporate ties can inject a new level of sophistication into the federal bureaucracy and help the economy grow. And efforts to trim regulations in some areas have attracted bipartisan support.

But in several cases, officials in the Trump administration now hold the exact jobs they targeted as lobbyists or lawyers in the past two years.

Trump White House officials had over 300 recent corporate clients and employers, including Apple, the giant hedge fund Citadel and the insurance titan Anthem, according to a Times analysis of financial disclosures. (The White House has released disclosures for only about half of its roughly 180 current senior political employees.) And there are more than 40 former lobbyists in the White House and the broader federal government.

Walter M. Shaub Jr. is director of the Office of Government Ethics, which advises federal agencies to help them and their employees — including the White House — comply with federal ethics laws, such as a prohibition on using a government post to personally profit.

He said that Mr. Trump’s own ethics executive order in late January eliminated a requirement, first adopted by President Barack Obama, that executive branch appointees not accept jobs in agencies they recently lobbied. That weakened standards applying to approximately 4,000 executive branch hires.

The New York Times