Treasury Secretary Yellen’s Brookings Relationship Underscores Waivering Govt. Ethics

Treasury Secretary Yellen’s Brookings Relationship Underscores Waivering Govt. Ethics

  • August 3, 2023
Yet another reminder that appointing activists and insiders to government raises ethics issues

Government watchdog group Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) continues to draw attention to the number and content of ethics waivers granted to Biden administration appointees and the broken system of granting ethics waivers to officials. The example of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s ongoing relationship with her former employer, the Brookings Institution, is instructive.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, PPT obtained the documents granting Secretary Yellen and several other high-ranking Treasury Department appointees ethics waivers allowing them to interact with former employers.

Ms. Yellen was employed by Brookings when she was nominated to head the Treasury Department and resigned that unpaid but prominent position when her appointment was confirmed. Her husband, however, continued to work for Brookings in a paid position.

Secretary Yellen has given at least one speech in her Treasury Department capacity to Brookings. The memorandum granting her waiver authorizes Ms. Yellen to give “give speeches and/or present information on behalf of the Department at Brookings events, with the rare exception of participating in events that would result in a demonstrable financial benefit to Brookings.” While it was unlikely there was a “demonstrable financial benefit,” there certainly is a prestige benefit in hosting the Treasury Secretary, which could produce a fundraising benefit.

The Secretary also received briefings from Brookings personnel about substantive economic issues. Again, this is allowed under the waiver unless the briefing were to “constitute a particular matter involving Brookings as a party for purposes of ethics rules.” This sort of carve-out for influential organizations with ties to powerful insiders is precisely why the American public looks askance at the government that should be working for them.

The authorization to participate in certain matters involving Brookings Treasury’s ethics officials granted Ms. Yellen came in January 2022, nearly a year after she joined the agency. She had earlier received, in February 2021, an authorization to participate in certain matters involving organizations to whom she had received honoraria for speeches prior to becoming Treasury secretary. PPT’s Ethics Waiver Tracker lists nearly 80 Biden appointees granted waivers since January 2021.

“The question isn’t the Secretary’s activities, though she should see that giving speeches and getting briefings from her husband’s employer certainly raises eyebrows,” said PPT Director Michael Chamberlain. “But underlying all this is a Biden Administration that claims to be the most ethical in history, yet appears far too eager to place conflicted political appointees in powerful positions that require waivers in order to perform their jobs. This has often placed ethics officials in an awkward position and represents just another reason the American public’s trust in its government has virtually evaporated.”