This Sunshine Week, How “Draining the Swamp” and Open Government are Faring in the Trump Era

March 12, 2018 | 3:03 pm
Photo: bigwavephoto/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

Update, March 13, 2018: Jeffrey Sands, who is mentioned in this post, has reportedly left his position of agricultural advisor at the EPA and has started working as a policy advisor in Representative Ted Yoho’s office as of last week. I’ve updated the post to reflect this development.


We are more than one year into President Trump’s administration, and if you’ve been following the news, you know all too well that the whole “draining the swamp” initiative was only ever lip service at best. Despite issuing an executive order on ethics in his first week of office, President Trump has managed to appoint a slew of former lobbyists or industry staff to positions dealing directly with issues that affect their former employers’ bottom lines.

Failing to abide by his own ethics order while not making financial disclosures public is effectively undermining the very system that is built to eliminate corruption in our government and protect our democracy. While industry awaits its chance to profit from regulatory rollbacks, the rest of us are missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits. Corporate capture of the government cripples its ability to carry out protective laws and puts lives at risk, especially those living in communities of color and low-income communities that are more exposed to threats.

Here’s a quick roundup of some of the more egregious administration nominations and appointments—people with serious conflicts of interest that should disqualify them from service or at least change the nature of their service.

The Environmental Protection Agency

There have been a whole bunch of cringeworthy ethics violations happening at the EPA lately, including Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first-class flight penchant and the fact that John Konkus has continued to do public relations work for unnamed private clients while serving as the deputy associate administrator of the Office of Public Affairs and signing off on all grant applications and awards.

For now, let’s simply focus on the revolving door at the agency. Earlier this month, the EPA announced that a former Dow Chemical Company attorney, Peter Wright, was the nominee for administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). Not only would Wright be leading the cleanup of Dow Superfund sites, but OLEM also oversees implementation of the Risk Management Plan. Dow Chemical Company is listed as the parent company for 23 registered RMP facilities, 17 deregistered facilities, and more than 100 Superfund sites. One of the main functions of OLEM is to hold companies accountable for polluting peoples’ water, land, and air. Yet, once again the Trump administration has selected an individual who has long represented the interests of industry to lead an office tasked with protecting the public from further harm.

As we’ve already seen with former American Chemistry Council lobbyist Nancy Beck and former legal counsel of American Petroleum Institute William Wehrum, these conflicted appointees are actively working to reverse science-based policy decisions in favor of industry-approved deregulatory measures. And seeing as the EPA general counsel has not adequately prevented EPA appointees from participating in policy discussions pertaining to their previous employers’ work, it is likely that the same will be true for Wright. Peter Wright will be yet another example of the fox guarding the henhouse, meaning that the people who have been fighting for decades for information on chemical facilities in their neighborhoods or the cleanup of dioxin in a local river will not get the justice they deserve.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Kailee Tkacz, a lobbyist for the Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of corn byproducts like corn syrup and other sweeteners, came on board to advise the agency on the Dietary Guidelines process in advance of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. She had been working at the trade association up until July 2017 and received an ethics waiver to work on the Dietary Guidelines in August 2017, meaning she has gone right into the government from the industry to work on an issue that she previously lobbied on. This is a direct and significant conflict of interest—and one that could have major impacts on health recommendations for the American diet.

Department of Interior

There’s a whole mess of oil and gas industry allegiance going on at the Department of the Interior, surely aided by the fact that David Bernhardt, Secretary Zinke’s deputy, had a long list of former clients in that sector, including Noble Energy Inc. and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Another appointee to keep an eye on is Todd Wynn, who is serving as the Director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at DOI and was the former director of the Koch-funded American Legislative Council (ALEC’s) Energy Environmental and Agriculture Task Force. During his time there, the task force introduced a collection of model bills opposing EPA and DOI environmental protections like the coal ash rule, the fracking disclosure rule, and the stream protection rule. Now he can push for these same destructive policy changes from the inside.

Department of Health and Human Services

Current HHS secretary Alex Azar was a lobbyist and president of Eli Lilly up until 2017. He is now leading a government department that regulates pharmaceutical companies like his former employer. As my colleague Derrick Jackson wrote earlier this year, “There is no evidence to remotely suggest that Azar, the first pharmaceutical executive ever to head HHS…will miraculously transform from drug company CEO into the people’s champion on drug prices.”

The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned earlier this year because she had so many financial conflicts of interest that she was actually unable to do her job. In fact, Fitzgerald had purchased thousands of dollars worth of shares in drug companies Merck & Co. and Bayer as well as a tobacco company, Japan Tobacco, shortly after joining the CDC. According to her meeting schedule, she still participated in meetings on the opioid crisis, hurricane response efforts, cancer and obesity, stroke prevention, polio, Zika, and Ebola between August 1 and October 27 despite owning stock in companies that make HIV medications, an Ebola vaccine, and Zika research. While it is unclear if she was an active participant in those meetings or had remained silent, her mere presence at such meetings would have represented a conflict.

How is the Office of Government Ethics allowing appointees to get away with rampant conflicts of interest?

A ProPublica database of financial disclosure forms reveals that 187 political appointees are former lobbyists, many of whom are working on issues that they previously lobbied on representing industry or other organizations. This is exactly what Trump’s executive order is supposed to protect against. So what’s going on that’s allowing this to happen?

The Ethics in Government Act was passed in 1978 in response to the Watergate scandal, as part of an effort to deter conflicts of interest and increase public trust in government, and created the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). It requires that all political appointees and high-level government officials disclose their financial holdings and make them public. Confidential disclosures are also required from other federal employees and special government employees.

Trump’s executive order requiring ethics commitments by executive branch appointees actually removed some of the ethics rules put in place by President Obama. Obama’s 2009 order prevented individuals from entering the administration who were registered lobbyists in the preceding year, while Trump’s order allows lobbyists to enter the administration as long as they don’t work on an issue they lobbied on in the past two years. President Trump’s order also shortened the two-year exit ban to one year for all appointees except cabinet-level, which would effectively allow officials to lobby former agencies just one year after leaving the administration, considered a short cooling-off period. Trump’s order allows ethics waivers for certain unavoidable conflicts, but removes the requirement to disclose those waivers by publishing them in the federal register. Overall, his ethics requirements leave room for shadow lobbying, which is the ability for former appointees to take jobs with industries they were in charge of regulating and then informally lobby the administration.

It is expected that if there is an appearance of conflict of interest, an appointee would recuse themselves from all matters having to do with his or her previous employer. However, as previously noted, that has not consistently been happening at agencies. Further, according to the OGE, ethics waivers are only supposed to be used when there is no other option for the position whose resume is less conflicted. Agencies are abusing the use of these waivers. An Associated Press investigation found that the White House has granted at least 24 ethics waivers to appointees at the White House and the executive agencies.

One of those waivers was filed in October 2017 for Jeffrey Sands, formerly a registered lobbyist at Syngenta, who served as the senior agricultural advisor at the EPA until March 2018. His waiver allowed him “to work personally and substantially on all agriculture issues, including those which previously lobbied.” The implications of Sands having had the ear of Pruitt for six months on discussions ranging from pesticide registrations, to worker protection standards, to conservation programs are troubling and don’t bode well for public health and safety.

The OGE is not an enforcement agency, so it does not have power to challenge or investigate ethics complaints—it helps agencies to follow the rules and vet appointees. The clear conflicts of interest of the President and his appointees, combined with the lack of transparency that has thus far been characteristic of the administration, have created large vulnerabilities for science-based policy in this administration.

Shining light on the administration’s ethical quandaries

As the administration has been trying its best to keep information from the public, there are many organizations and journalists who have been standing up for our right to know and holding the government accountable for its blunders. ProPublica released, Trump Town,  a fantastic searchable database of financial disclosure forms and ethics waivers for thousands of political appointees. Sunlight Foundation is tracking President Trump’s business and personal dealings that may represent conflicts of interest. Public Citizen has conducted research into President Trump’s conflicts as well as those of government appointees. The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service have been tracking the nomination and appointment process across the government. And Project on Government Oversight released a report last week tracking the erosion of openness occurring under the Trump Administration. We all must work together to demand transparency and honesty from this administration and to call out violations to the straightforward rules governing government ethics. Our democracy relies on it.

If you’re in DC and want to hear more from me about the state of environmental transparency, register to attend this Sunshine Week event Tuesday, March 13 hosted by UCS, Sunlight Foundation, and the Project on Government Oversight.