Ethics Experts Say Administration’s Hiring of Top Biden Advisor’s Kids Raises Questions
A White House official said the Ricchettis have relevant qualifications for their jobs and their levels of experience are similar to those of their predecessors.
Ethics experts have some questions and concerns following the news on Monday that three of a top White House advisor’s four children work in the Biden administration.
The Treasury Department announced that J.J. Ricchetti, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2020 and is the son of White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, would be a special assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs, an entry level position. Two more of Ricchetti’s children are working in the administration, Politico pointed out on Monday evening—one as deputy associate director for the White House social secretary and another as senior advisor in the office of the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. The fourth child is working outside the administration for Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich..
A White House official who declined to be named said the Ricchettis have pertinent qualifications for their jobs and their levels of experience are similar to those of their predecessors. J.J. volunteered on the campaign and Shannon Ricchetti (who is in the White House social secretary’s office) worked on the transition. Both are within talent pools the administration prioritized in its hiring, said the official.
The LinkedIn accounts for Daniel Ricchetti (at the State Department) and Shannon also show their past jobs and education. J.J Ricchetti’s page just says that he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor's degree in political science and government.
The State Department referred Government Executive to the White House for comment. The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.
During the campaign and upon coming into office, Biden pledged to hold his employees to the highest ethical standards and increase transparency of the White House. Biden issued a sweeping ethics pledge for appointees; however, it doesn’t mention anything about family connections. There have been no reports that the Ricchettis obtained their positions unlawfully. Nevertheless, ethics experts and former officials said the situation raises some potential issues.
Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said, “If Steve Ricchetti in any way encouraged their hiring then the appointments are invalid under the anti-nepotism statute.”
“They might try to argue that a senior White House staff member does not have ‘jurisdiction or control’ over an executive branch agency,” he said, quoting the relevant statute. However, “having worked in the White House and having worked on the ethics agreements of every presidential appointee to a federal agency for two and a half years, I know for a fact that senior White House staff have an enormously influential role in deciding who is appointed by the president to agencies and how agencies operate.”
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “hiring relatives always raises sensitive workplace fairness questions, even when there is no evidence that the father was directly involved in his children being hired as political appointees.”
She questioned whether the children were given these job opportunities because they were the best candidates or because of who their father is and if there will be any firewalls established for work assignments and communications?
“Will hiring these family members distort the influence of their father within the administration similar to concerns that resulted from the hiring of Jared and Ivanka, who by virtue of their presidential family ties acquired unprecedented power within the Trump White House leading to a lack of oversight and accountability, including a circumvention of normal security clearance procedures,” Canter asked. “While these family hires do not involve senior appointments of the president's children, what safeguards are in place to prevent possible workplace abuses?”
Lastly, she said she wondered if “they have protocols in place to ensure that there is independent oversight regarding the children's work performance to mitigate concerns of favoritism or fears about possible retaliation?”
Jeff Hauser, founder and executive director of The Revolving Door Project, an initiative of the Center for Economic and Policy Research that scrutinizes executive branch appointments, said “our ethics rules are far too weak and narrow to encompass the threat that an uncle can lobby an administration strewn with his nephews, but just because it is legal doesn't mean it is anything [other] than thoroughly worrisome,” in reference to the work of Jeff Ricchetti, Steve’s brother and a lobbyist for General Motors.
“As a few well-positioned clans (the Sullivans, Donilons, and Ricchettis) come to dominate the executive branch immediately following the plague of Trumps and Trump cronies, the notion that the American system is vastly more meritocratic than past aristocracies begins to come into serious question,” he said.
Sarah Donilion, special assistant in the national Security Council’s Asia directorate, is the daughter of Cathy Russell, Presidential Personnel Office director, and niece of Mike Donilon, senior adviser to the president, Politico pointed out in their report on Monday.
Also, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, has family ties in the administration, as Politico previously reported. His younger brother, Tom Sullivan, is the deputy chief of staff for policy at the State Department and their spouses have senior roles in the Health and Human Services and the Justice departments, respectively. (The reports do not say there was any undue influence in anyone obtaining their roles).
The news about the Ricchettis came after The Washington Post reported on Monday morning about ethical questions between Steve Ricchetti––who is a key player in the ongoing infrastructure negotiations––and his brother, Jeff.
White House lawyers “required Steve Ricchetti to recuse himself from involvement with ‘particular matters’ for four companies that paid his brother to lobby Biden’s executive office,” said the report. “But under White House ethics guidance, Jeff Ricchetti’s work with [General Motors] did not trigger a recusal for his brother — because his lobbying targeted a Cabinet agency and not the Executive Office of the President and because the issue of electric charging stations applied broadly to the car industry and was not considered a matter specific to the company.”
Jeff told The Post, “I have not lobbied my brother and I no longer lobby the White House Office,” but did not respond to their follow up questions about when he stopped and what he meant exactly by the “White House Office.”