By Eric Lipton and Steve Eder, The New York Times, May 31, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Trump has given at least 16 White House staff members dispensation to work on policy matters they handled while employed as lobbyists or to interact with their former colleagues in private-sector jobs, according to records released late Wednesday.
The details on these so-called ethics waivers — more than five times the number granted in the first four months of the Obama administration — were made public after an intense dispute between the White House and the Office of Government Ethics, which had been pushing the Trump administration to stop granting such waivers in secret.
The list of waivers includes high-profile names such as Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, and Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser. They had to be granted waivers because of their prior work with organizations such as the Republican National Committee, which Mr. Priebus once ran, and because they continue to have contact with those organizations as part of their White House work.
But the waivers granted by the White House are also going to former lobbyists, despite Mr. Trump’s campaign vow to try to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington.
Andrew Olmem, who until recently was a Washington-based partner at the law firm Venable L.L.P., is a special assistant to the president for financial policy after he lobbied the federal government on behalf of a number of financial firms, including American Express, MetLife and S&P Global. Mr. Olmem’s waiver allows for him to participate in communications and meetings with former clients involving Puerto Rico’s financial issues, as well as amendments to the Flood Disaster Protection Act and reforming the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s treatment of insurers, the White House said.
A second waiver was given to Michael Catanzaro, who until January was registered as a lobbyist for companies including Devon Energy, an oil and gas company, and Talen Energy, a coal-burning electric utility. Mr. Catanzaro moved from lobbying against Obama-era environmental rules to overseeing the White House office in charge of rolling back the same rules, an activity permitted by his waiver.
Also receiving a waiver was Shahira Knight, who had been a lobbyist for Fidelity Investments and now serves as a special assistant to the president for tax and retirement policy — the same topic she had lobbied on while working for Fidelity, one of the largest retirement-investment companies in the United States.
Five former lawyers and another former employee from Jones Day — the law firm that handled compliance matters and other legal issues for the Trump campaign — also have been given waivers to communicate with the firm. Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, is one of the former Jones Day lawyers covered by that waiver.
The waivers made public Wednesday also appear to retroactively eliminate an apparent ethics problem for Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, who was an executive at Breitbart News. The ethics policy prohibited him from contacting employees at Breitbart for two years on matters he had handled while an executive there, but Mr. Bannon repeatedly engaged in conversations with Breitbart editors, according to a complaint filed by the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The waiver, retroactive to Jan. 20, allows White House aides to “participate in communications and meetings with news organizations on matters of broad policy” even if they involve “a former employer or former client.”
A separate waiver, which applies to senior White House employees, allows them to communicate with a range of political organizations — even if they previously worked for them — including Donald J. Trump for President and the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Lindsay E. Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Trump administration had tried, when possible, to urge aides to avoid conflicts and had asked them to not work on topics they once handled in the private sector, instead of granting waivers.
“The White House has voluntarily released the ethics waivers as part of the president’s commitment to the American people to be transparent,” she said.
The documents released Wednesday related only to White House staff, not federal agencies. The agencies may also be giving new political appointees the privilege to participate in policy deliberations that might benefit their former clients or business partners. Details on these waivers will become public in the coming days.
Waivers are intended to bring experienced people with special skills into the government. Both Mr. Catanzaro and Ms. Knight bring prior government experience to their new jobs: Mr. Catanzaro was a senior Senate aide for the committee overseeing environmental policy and Ms. Knight worked for the House Ways and Means Committee on tax policy.
The number of waivers rose during the Obama administration because Mr. Obama imposed new ethics rules, such as a ban on hiring lobbyists, which could be avoided only with a waiver.
With these broad restrictions in place for the first time, the Obama administration issued a relatively small number of waivers. Over Mr. Obama’s eight years in office, about 16 waivers were granted for White House officials and a total of about 70 across the entire federal government. Just three of those waivers for White House staff members came in the first four months of his administration.
In most instances, the officials who received waivers under Mr. Obama argued that the overlap between their government jobs and their previous private-sector work was minor, or that allowing it was in the public interest.
For example, the three waivers issued in the first months of the Obama administration — including one given to Valerie Jarrett, who served as senior adviser to the president — each involved staff members who previously worked for nonprofit groups but who joined the administration working in related policy areas.
Among them was like Jocelyn Frye, who was the director of policy and projects in Michelle Obama’s office of the first lady. Ms. Frye, who had previously served as general counsel at the nonprofit National Partnership for Women Families, worked on similar issues with Ms. Obama.
In an executive order signed in late January establishing his own ethics rules for his political appointees, Mr. Trump adopted, word for word, much of the language in Mr. Obama’s ethics rules, with one important exception: He dropped the broad ban on hiring just-departed lobbyists.
The waivers show that Mr. Trump is also instituting the ethics rules in a very different way. He is allowing former industry lobbyists who worked for for-profit concerns to, in some cases, take up the same topics they had handled in the private sector.
Robert Weissman, president of the liberal nonprofit group Public Citizen, said he believed the waivers issued by Mr. Trump’s White House undermined the purpose of the ethics rules. The rules were written to prevent the government from becoming a revolving door, where industry players can come in and help their former paying clients, he said.
“They are circumventing what they touted as their signature ethics achievement,” Mr. Weissman said. “It’s utterly at odds with candidate Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric and it suggests that the Trump executive order is not worth the paper it is written on.”