Revolving Door Continues Whirring

Revolving Door Continues Whirring

  • July 26, 2022

Waivers granted during the Biden Administration rapidly closing in on the number during Trump years

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced several additions to its Ethics Waiver Tracker. These waivers bring the total tracked by the Tracker so far during the Biden Administration’s first 18 months to within a handful of the number issued during the first two-and-one-half years of the Trump Administration, according to information from the Office of Government Ethics and a similar tracking project operating during that period of the Trump years. Several of these recent waivers represent examples of the revolving door, cronyism, and DC swampiness that have helped feed the American public’s loss of trust in its government.

Lee Satterfield returns to the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) after serving at that agency during the Obama Administration. In the interim between stints at the State Department, she was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Meridian International Center, a “key partner of ECA in support of its professional and cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and other nations” and “one of ECA’s core grantees and has a cooperative agreement to help administer the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP),” according to Satterfield’s waiver. The waiver allows her to “participate in particular matters in which the Meridian International Center is a party, with the exception of funding decisions.” Ironically, Satterfield’s travels through the revolving door were used to bolster the case for the waiver, with her experience at ECA determined to be the “most important[]” aspect of her background qualifications justifying it.

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unearthed six waivers, two of which (for Secretary Xavier Becerra and Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine) had not been public but were indicated by other publicly available documents. Other waivers obtained via this lawsuit were for officials who served as deputies for Becerra and Levine in their prior positions at the states of California and Pennsylvania, respectively, as well as a former official in the state of Virginia, all of whom were granted waivers for matters involving the state in which each served. In addition to Becerra’s and Levine’s current chiefs of staff, who were former chief deputies in their state roles, this group included Sarah Lovenheim, currently HHS’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Lovenheim’s waiver not only allows her to participate in matters involving the State of California but also the Washington Post, where her husband works. However, when she received the waiver her husband worked in the Business Department of the paper and this section of the waiver was valid only as long as he worked in that department. In March, the Washington Post announced Lovenheim’s husband was moving to another department from the Business Department. PPT has since submitted an additional FOIA request to determine if Lovenheim’s waiver had been updated since that move. Director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs Marvin Figueroa came to HHS from the state of Virginia, for which he received a waiver.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also received a waiver to communicate with CNN, which employs her partner. Jean-Pierre was granted the waiver about ten days after media reports highlighted the possible conflict of interest. After the media outcry, Jean-Pierre sought the waiver “in an abundance of caution,” even though the relationship with her partner does not meet the definition of “covered relationship” that would require recusal or a waiver under federal ethics laws.

Special Assistant to the President for Immigration at the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, Leidy Perez-Davis, is allowed to “participate in any particular matter on which she lobbied for the [American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)],” according to a waiver she received. The justification for the waiver cited her “extensive” professional background, “reflecting more than eight years of specialized expertise in immigration matters, particularly those issues involving separated families and issues related to border enforcement; long-standing leadership within immigrant communities and advocacy on behalf of immigrant communities; and significant experience developing congressional strategy and engaging members of Congress as an advocate and spokesperson on immigration policy issues.”

“DC is called The Swamp for a reason,” stated Director of Protect the Public’s Trust Michael Chamberlain. “Despite lofty promises, the revolving door continues to spin quite furiously during the Biden Administration. The number of waivers they have granted is on track to soon eclipse the volume from its predecessor’s opening 30 months. Further, rationales for doling out ethics waivers seem to be increasingly strained, including, in some cases, the conflict requiring the waiver being used as a justification for the waiver. Meanwhile, the American public’s trust in its government continues its precipitous slide.”