‘Ethical nightmare’: Biden temp workers raise financial disclosure concerns

As the Biden administration prepares for a staff reshuffle after the midterm elections, the White House has tapped a trusted adviser to seek appointees to President Joe Biden’s highest ranks.

Leading the mission is Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s former COVID-19 czar and a powerful leader known for his turnaround of the founding Obamacare online exchange.

But Zients’ new role, which is reportedly unpaid, has reignited questions about the use of a government designation that allows temporary staff to perform important White House duties. Under federal ethics law, personnel appointed to important roles must generally publicly disclose their current and past financial ties. This is not the case for temporary employees who earn just below the $132,552 salary threshold for disclosure.

As a “special government employee,” Zients can keep his private sector job and is exempt from filing the public financial statements required by full-time presidential hires. Similar to a consultant, a so-called EMS typically holds the position for 130 days or less.

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The positions have generated controversy over perceived or actual conflicts of interest in presidential administrations. Former President Donald Trump’s Acting Comptroller of the Currency was an industry lawyer who served as a special government employee. Huma Abedin held outside positions while advising Hillary Clinton at the State Department.

After spearheading Biden’s presidential transition, Zients was tapped to oversee his administration’s response to the coronavirus, drawing major applause, with Politics West Wing Playbook reported before he left this spring that he was well-positioned for a future role as the president’s chief of staff. A later report from the outlet noted that Zients was interested in becoming Biden’s next chief of staff or treasury secretary.

In his new role, Zients will report to Director of the Presidential Personnel Office Gautam Raghavan and work closely with Biden’s current chief of staff, Ron Klain, with most positions requiring Senate approval, according to Axios. Natalie Quillian, his former COVID-19 response assistant, deputy campaign manager for Biden in 2020, Boston Consulting Group partner and a senior Obama White House official before that, joins Zients.

While the practice follows the letter of the law, government ethics lawyers say temporary employees shouldn’t enjoy such influence over core government functions.

Tasking temporary employees with shortlisting Cabinet or Deputy Cabinet candidates is “highly unusual,” said Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s chief ethics counsel from 2005 to 2007.” To hire and remove people… is a fundamental power of the president under section 2 of the Constitution.You really shouldn’t entrust recommendations to the president to EMSs.

“You want people there all the time who listen to political concerns,” he said, suggesting that full-time employees in the White House Personnel Office would be most attentive to administration priorities. and therefore better able to identify the right candidates. .

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, defended the practice. “Nothing prohibits contractors from doing appraisal work,” he said. “Contracts have been doing background investigations since the 1990s.”

Yet, said Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, as high-level temps are exempt from publicly disclosing their financial interests, SGE’s roles create “a lack of transparency.” He said even officials whose roles require public disclosure of their financial ties tend to struggle. “There’s always an argument about which clients you should list and which ones you don’t,” he added.

Painter predicted that if Republicans took control of either house of Congress, the White House would likely face a flurry of inquiries related to SGE’s financial disclosures amid concerns over disputes. of interests. “It’s gonna get ugly,” he said.

Zients’ corporate work has already proven to be politically sensitive. Prior to joining the administration, a Democratic consulting firm took a scalpel to its Wikipedia page in the months before Biden took office, citing a quote about Zients’ “love” for Bain & Co culture , among other details, according to Policy. He continued to attract attention from the left.

“Zients working ‘pro bono’ allows him to escape the ethical restrictions that would apply if he performed government work while on the government payroll,” said Jeff Hauser of the liberal Revolving Door Project. “We believe government work, including talent identification, should be done by full-time government employees operating within the full set of ethical restrictions that apply to government personnel.”

When Zients joined the White House in 2021, his public financial disclosure showed him among the wealthiest employees in the Biden administration, declaring assets valued between $89.3 million and $442.8 million, according to ABC News. He sold his private equity firm, Cranemere Group, and $1 million worth of Facebook stock.

Zients made between $10.4 million and $28 million in income the year before Biden took office and has doubled his total wealth since serving as deputy director of the former’s Office of Management and Budget. President Barack Obama, ABC News reported.

EMSs are an “ethical nightmare,” said Painter, the president’s former associate attorney in the White House Counsel’s Office.

“I would stay up at night worrying about them,” he said. “They work two days a week for the White House, and three days a week they earn huge sums of money and line their pockets.”

A White House official did not respond when asked about how the White House plans to bring Zients in as an EMS.

White House efforts to shield other top presidential advisers from scrutiny have been chastised. It wasn’t until May that senior Biden adviser Anita Dunn took on a job that required filing a public disclosure despite months of offering advice to the president in roles punctuated by a return to SKDK, her business consulting firm and a major political provider.

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For a White House quick to tout its ethical good faith, Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics under Obama and briefly under Trump, told the Washington Examiner in August that “it seems really dishonest to give someone so much authority but set their salary below a level that would require financial disclosure”.

The White House said Dunn would divest his assets and recuse himself from all matters involving his former firm and former clients. In keeping with the administration’s ethics pledge, Dunn will also be barred from participating in meetings with those clients for two years, White House spokesman Chris Meagher told CNBC.

By September, Dunn had still not shed a multimillion-dollar financial portfolio, a pace Shaub called “outrageously slow.”

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