Former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Thomas Bowman appears to have violated the Trump administration’s ethics pledge by lobbying the VA for the drug company Novartis. According to a lobbying disclosure submitted in January, Bowman lobbied the VA about two and a half years after leaving the agency.
At the time of Bowman’s lobbying activity, he was bound by the Trump ethics pledge, which banned Trump appointees from engaging in lobbying activities related to their former agencies for five years after leaving the government. There were limited exceptions to the pledge but it’s not clear how they would apply to this case. Then-President Trump rescinded the ethics pledge the day he left office, allowing appointees who served in his administration to immediately lobby their former agencies.
Bowman submitted the filing revealing his apparent violation of the pledge the day after Trump revoked it, which just happened to be the day that lobbying disclosures were due. Once Trump revoked the ethics pledge, Bowman could avoid facing any consequences, such as civil actions for monetary relief and lengthier lobbying bans, for possibly violating the pledge.
By forcing former government officials to take time before lobbying their agencies, the pledge should have gone a long way to closing the revolving door between the government and private industry. Unfortunately, Bowman’s activity is part of a larger pattern of former Trump administration appointees exploiting loopholes in the ethics pledge to take advantage of their connections to the Trump administration for special interest clients. Despite some close calls in the past, Bowman’s disclosure provides the clearest indication that a former Trump administration appointee who signed the pledge actually violated the prohibition against lobbying their former agency.
Bowman served as the VA’s deputy secretary from August 2017 to June 15, 2018. The lobbying disclosure shows that Bowman, who had never lobbied the federal government before, was enlisted by the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to promote “opportunities for health care collaboration” between the VA and Novartis during the last quarter of 2020.
While the activity only netted Bowman less than $5,000, it was part of a larger lobbying push by Novartis to promote collaboration with the VA. Bowman’s lobbying activity follows Novartis’ receipt of a contract with the VA in the summer of 2020 worth up to $5.4 billion. So far, the orders placed through the contract represent just a fraction of that potential total. Novartis was reportedly also in discussions with the VA in May 2020 to include VA facilities in a hydroxychloroquine trial but Novartis ended their own trial in June. It is not clear if Bowman’s lobbying activity related to either of these issues or some other possible collaboration between the VA and Novartis. Suffice it to say, Novartis has a lot at stake in its relationship with the VA and Bowman was a familiar face to push their agenda.
Bowman’s lobbying activity highlights the weakness of Trump’s ethics pledge–due to loopholes or enforcement issues–and its failure to close the revolving door. Since Trump rescinded his ethics pledge, Bowman’s lobbying activity may be a sign of what is to come from other Trump administration appointees who can now lobby their former agencies unimpeded.
Bowman’s example shows that far from draining the swamp, the Trump administration made Washington swampier. It’s no surprise that on his way out of office, Trump set a bunch of swamp creatures free.
Research interns Tiffany Tam and Angela Li contributed to this report