Requests for waiver documents for high-ranking officials have been slow-walked
UPDATE September 15, 2021: USDA Reverses Itself; Agrees to Provide Records
The Department of Agriculture has contacted Protect the Public’s Trust and agreed that it improperly interpreted the scope of our request and plans to expedite responsive records.
Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust criticized the lack of transparency from the Biden Administration regarding waivers to ethics restrictions. PPT’s expanded Ethics Waiver Tracker added an additional 16 officials despite the official waiver documents for a dozen of them still being withheld by agencies. Far from being transparent, many of these officials may be working with former employers or clients without public knowledge of their agencies’ authorization to do so.
Between June 1 and 2, 2021, PPT submitted FOIA requests with 18 Federal agencies asking for the agencies’ waivers. The responses have been emblematic of the Biden Administration’s aversion to transparency – in some cases the secrecy has been quite blatant. For instance, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) responded the agency was “unable to provide any responsive records” to the request. Yet, documents available on the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) website indicate Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack was indeed granted a waiver that, according to a media report, “allows him to oversee” a program through which he collects payments from USDA. PPT has appealed USDA’s response. (See update above.)
As authority to spend trillions of dollars is granted to the Executive Branch, the public’s ability to know which officials have access to and may be doing the bidding of their former employers or clients remains a paramount concern. PPT has filed several complaints with agency Inspectors General as we have discovered officials appearing to do precisely that.
“The lack of transparency from Executive Branch agencies doesn’t comport with the Biden Administration’s claims to be the most ethical in history,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “For some of these waivers, we’re more than halfway through the time period for which they are relevant but the agencies continue to drag their feet on making them publicly available. The American public deserves to know if government officials are complying with their ethics obligations. That is not possible due to these agencies’ intransigence.”
Waivers for President Biden’s Cabinet
- HHS Secretary: From documents provided via an unrelated FOIA request with a different agency, PPT learned that Xavier Becerra’s “502 waiver” or “impartiality determination” contained “non-standard language.” Because the waiver is not publicly available, the American public has no way of knowing the matters to which Becerra’s waiver applies.
- Treasury Secretary: Janet Yellen received a waiver allowing her to participate in matters involving companies to which she had delivered paid speeches.
- USDA Secretary: Thomas Vilsack was granted a waiver that, according to a media report, “allows him to oversee” a program through which he collects payments from USDA.
- NASA Administrator: Former Senator Bill Nelson received a waiver that allows him to participate in matters involving Lockheed, for whom he worked as a consultant.
- EPA Administrator: Michael Regan was granted a “502 wavier” with respect to his work with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) which authorizes him to “participate in new or future specific party matters that involve NC DEQ.”
EXPOSED: Waivers to other senior Biden appointees revealed through FOIA documents
- Treasury Senior Counselor to the Secretary David Lipton: Received a waiver to participate in matters involving his former employer, the International Monetary Fund.
- Interior Senior Counselor to the Secretary Liz Klein: Sought a waiver from ethics officials using “non-standard language” that was similar to that used in HHS Secretary Becerra’s waiver. This was only revealed as a result of a court order in separate FOIA litigation.
- EPA Acting General Counsel Melissa Hoffer: Received a waiver permitting her to make policy decisions on cases she participated in personally and substantially while at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.
- NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy: Received a waiver that permits her to “participate in certain matters at the policy and program level” involving three entities with which she had covered relationships.
Agencies Refusing to Produce a Single Record
Departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, OGE and the Offices of Management and Budget and Personnel Management, Departments of Commerce (No Records Response) and Labor (No Records Response) and USDA (No Records Response – currently appealed by PPT).