At least a half-dozen former lobbyists are working in President Donald Trump’s White House even though they haven’t received waivers from the administration’s ethics rules, raising questions about how much the rules do to prevent conflicts of interest.
The ethics pledge Trump implemented in January, which he touted as part of his campaign-trail pledge to “drain the swamp” of Washington, bars administration officials from working on any issues they lobbied on during the past two years.
The Trump administration has granted exemptions from the rules for a handful of staffers, as President Barack Obama’s administration did. But at least six former lobbyists now working in the White House haven’t received such waivers, meaning they must recuse themselves internally from any issue where they have conflicts, according to the White House.
The lack of transparency on how these staffers are following the ethics rules has drawn criticism from Democratic members of Congress and ethics lawyers who question whether officials with broad portfolios can recuse themselves from a wide array of issues.
“I have been concerned by the number of White House staff who have already received ethics waivers this year,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who voted against a former lobbyist Trump nominated to the No. 2 post at the Interior Department this week, said in a statement.
“But what may be even more troubling is that several veteran lobbyists are working as key advisors in the White House without waivers, which invites the question: Does President Trump, who pledged to ‘drain the swamp’ during his campaign, take ethics rules seriously?”
The White House defended its steps to avoid conflicts.
“Employees who have not received waivers have been advised of their need to recuse where the law requires,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters wrote in an email.
Under pressure to be more transparent, the White House last week released a list of ethics waivers it had issued for its employees. On Wednesday, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics released a second list of waivers granted to people working in Trump administration agencies, including one allowing a former lobbyist now at the Department of Health and Human Services to work on issues he has lobbied on. But other former lobbyists, in the White House and elsewhere in government, did not receive waivers.
Amy Swonger, for instance, the White House’s deputy director of legislative affairs, lobbied for nearly three dozen clients in the two years before she joined the administration on a variety of issues from aviation to banking to health care to immigration to taxes to trade, according to a POLITICO review of disclosure filings. Stephen Pinkos, Vice President Mike Pence’s deputy director of domestic policy, lobbied for more than two dozen clients across even more areas. Neither was on the list of White House staffers who received ethics waivers.
“I think it would be hard for them to do their jobs without waivers,” said Don Fox, a former acting director and general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics.
The case for requiring waivers for staffers such as Swonger and Pinkos would have been even stronger under the Obama administration’s ethics rules, Fox said. Lawyers in Trump’s White House appear to be using a more narrow definition of the “specific issue area” ex-lobbyists previously worked on, according to a little-noticed Office of Government Ethics advisory issued this spring. That means they can more easily work on issues adjacent to their old portfolios in the Trump administration than they could have under Obama.
Walters declined to explain why individual employees did or did not receive waivers or discuss the White House’s interpretation of its ethics rules, saying the Office of Government Ethics advisory “speaks for itself.”
Five of the lobbyists POLITICO identified who haven’t received waivers work in Pence’s office.
Marc Lotter, the vice president’s press secretary, said that none of them had responsibilities now that overlapped with the specific matters they lobbied on in the past two years. “They have been counseled on the restrictions in Execution Order 13770; signed the Ethics Pledge; received training on the restrictions in the Pledge, as well as additional ethics training on conflicts of interest,” Lotter wrote in an email. “Should a conflict arise, they will recuse themselves and pass the issue to another staff member.”
In practice, though, recusing from a wide range of policy issues can be tricky.
In the Obama administration, officials with conflicts of interest who hadn’t received waivers were expected to remove themselves from email chains that mentioned things they’d worked on before joining the White House and walk out of meetings in which they came up. “There is no incentive to comply with the rules in this situation,” Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s administration, wrote in an email.
The Trump administration has also taken flack for the waivers it has granted, which allow White House and agency staffers to shape policy on matters they lobbied on just months earlier.
Mike Catanzaro, for instance, represented energy companies as a lobbyist for CGCN Group before joining the administration as a special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy. Lance Leggitt, the chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human, lobbied until recently for health industry clients for Baker Donelson. The White House counsel’s office signed off on waivers for both.
Some lobbyists who didn’t get waivers had narrower lobbying portfolios than Swonger or Pinkos before joining the White House. Daris Meeks, the vice president’s director of domestic policy, worked for Pence while he was a congressman before heading to K Street. He lobbied on banking, bankruptcy, copyright issues, finance, housing and insurance for about a dozen clients in the two years before joining the administration; he deregistered as a lobbyist for Venable in January.
Sarah Makin, the vice president’s director of public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, lobbied for a single client, the US Consumer Coalition. Other White House staffers who haven’t received waivers include Mark Paoletta, the vice president’s counsel, who lobbied on defense, health care, taxes and telecommunications policy, and Matt Morgan, the deputy counsel, who lobbied on budget issues, health care, Medicare and Medicaid issues, roads, trade, transportation and urban development.
The batch of waivers released by the Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday afternoon also didn’t include several former lobbyists working in other parts of government. They include Kristi Boswell at the Agriculture Department, Geoffrey Burr at the Labor Department, Keagan Lenihan at the Department of Health and Human Services, Justin Mikolay at the Defense Department, Stephen Vaughn at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and Chad Wolf at the Transportation Security Administration.
None of the agencies responded to questions about whether the former lobbyists working there had received waivers. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not confirm that Vaughn hadn’t received a waiver but said he was following the rules.
"Stephen Vaughn has had and continues to have discussions about ethics issues with appropriate USTR officials and that is in full compliance with applicable ethics requirements," a spokesman said in a statement.
Matthew Nussbaum contributed reporting.