Number of Ethics Waivers for Biden Administration Officials Continues to Grow

Number of Ethics Waivers for Biden Administration Officials Continues to Grow

  • April 13, 2022

Latest additions to PPT’s tracker demonstrate unusual volume, breadth, and scope of waivers

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced it has added five waivers to its Ethics Waiver Tracker. Each of these waivers, awarded to four political appointees across three agencies, represents an example of pushing the boundaries of waivers, with those awarded to one appointee prompting another watchdog organization to advocate for rescinding them.

U.S. Digital Service Administrator in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mina Hsiang received conflict of interest waivers for multiple companies in which she holds six- and seven-figure investments through trusts or hedge funds. The unusual breadth of these waivers raised eyebrows among ethics watchdogs. One has called on the Biden administration to rescind them, saying they authorize her “to keep and profit from significant investments in technology companies,” and that the size of the waivers granted to Ms. Hsiang “literally puts them above the law.” PPT currently has an outstanding FOIA request for waivers with OMB, submitted in June 2021, for which the agency has yet to provide any documents.

The most recent waiver to the Biden Ethics Pledge posted on the Office of Government Ethics website allows an appointee to work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), despite having lobbied the agency while at her previous employer. Maureen Elias, who lobbied VA while Associate Legislative Director at Paralyzed Veterans of America, will nevertheless be permitted to serve as Special Advisor to Chief of Staff at VA. The waiver cites her “rare set of skills,” while also noting the Ethics Pledge’s bias toward granting waivers to those who lobbied on behalf of nonprofits. The waiver allows her to hold the position at VA in spite of her past lobbying of the agency, but does not, however, permit her to participate in particular matters involving specific parties directly and substantially related to her former employers or clients.

The number of waivers and impartiality decisions known by PPT awarded to Environmental Protection Agency appointees now stands at eight. Documents received from EPA via a FOIA request revealed two more appointees who received Impartiality Determinations, allowing them to participate in matters involving the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ). Kathleen Lance and John Lucey had each worked for current EPA Administrator Michael Regan while he was at NC DEQ and received impartiality determinations authorizing them to assist the Administrator, “as necessary, even if your former employer is involved.” Interestingly, these de facto waivers came in the form of an email from the Director of the EPA Ethics Office stating, “This note confirms that I have authorized you both to participate in specific party matters that involve the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ).”

“Not all waivers are created equal,” declared Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Each of these waivers, or de facto waivers, appears to push the envelope in some way, in one case even to the point of provoking calls for recission. This is hardly the type of behavior the public should expect from an administration pledging to be the most ethical in history.”