Ten administration officials granted exceptions to ethics rule
The waivers grant exceptions to the Executive Order on Ethics for Executive Branch Personnel, which President Obama signed as one of his first acts in office. A key provision prohibits appointees for two years from working on any issue "directly and substantially related to [their] former employer or former clients, regulations and contracts." But, the White House determined that in a handful of circumstances, there was a compelling public interest to lift that rule.
"In each case, it was determined by an agency ethics officer after careful review that the public interest in permitting the appointee's participation outweighed any appearance concerns," said Norm Eisen, the special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform.
Among those granted a waiver was Ashton Carter, who was confirmed as undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in April. Before joining the administration, Carter was a strategic consultant for Textron Inc., a defense contractor.
According to the waiver, Carter's consulting focused on mergers and acquisition matters for Textron's corporate headquarters, trends in military technology and strategy and the deployment of weapon systems in war regions. Carter also provided business advice on the Sensor Fuzed Weapon, a cluster bomb previously used by Air Force. The system has not been funded in the Defense budget since fiscal 2007.
"Substantial national security challenges require your expertise and judgment in making sound acquisition decisions on major defense programs, several of which involve Textron or one of its subsidiaries," wrote Jeh Charles Johnson, the Defense Department's designated ethics official. "In my judgment, the nature of your previous consulting arrangement should not restrict your ability to address these national security challenges."
The administration also granted a waiver to Naomi Walker to be associate deputy secretary of the Labor Department. Walker formerly served as director of state government affairs for the AFL-CIO.
Robert Shapiro, associate solicitor for legal counsel at Labor, determined that limiting Walker's communication with the union "would be detrimental to the department and to the millions of persons represented by the AFL-CIO." Walker is, however, prohibited for the next two years from participating in any matter involving the regulations or contracts of the AFL-CIO.
Some agency heads received exemptions as well. For example, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden got the green light to participate in work involving the science and technology contractor SAIC and defense company GenCorp. Bolden previously served as a consultant to SAIC and was on the GenCorp board of directors.
Bolden is prohibited from engaging in one-on-one meetings or communications and from participating in any contracting-related matters involving either organization.
The administration granted three waivers to Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, allowing them to participate in the investigation of agency attorneys involved in the prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens. The three officials previously worked for law firms that are now representing the government prosecutors. In April, a judge threw out a corruption verdict against Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, citing possible prosecutorial misconduct.
The White House already had disclosed six ethics waivers for agency or White House officials. Three involved the revolving door provisions; the others addressed a ban on recent lobbyists joining the administration.
The 16 waivers -- 10 for agency employees and six for White House officials - went to less than 1 percent of the 1,890 appointments the administration has made since January, Eisen said.
Public interest and government watchdog groups, many of which had called on the administration to be more transparent in its operations, praised the new ethics disclosures.
"This is a big step in the right direction toward open government," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. "This gives a taste of transparency and we are thirsty for more."
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, added that the waivers seemed "reasonable" and noncontroversial.