The Lobbyists

By Dan Froomkin
12:32 PM ET, 01/29/2009

Obama's new lobbying rules are undeniably the strictest the White House has ever had. But the exceptions are starting to pile up.

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Barack Obama on Wednesday named a politically connected top executive of a financial services company that's seeking federal bailout money to be his chief legal counsel on the economy, a move raising ethical concerns with watchdog organizations and casting a shadow on Obama's campaign theme of change.

"In a statement on Wednesday morning, Obama said he appointed Neal Wolin, division president of The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., to become his deputy White House counsel for economic affairs. That makes Wolin the top legal adviser on economic issues...

"'It raises questions. He may be a great lawyer, but he has to be walled off from insurance decision-making, and I assume he will be, based on Obama's statements,' said Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer watchdog organization. 'If he isn't, I would be very troubled.'...

"White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the selection last night.

"'Neal has unparalleled experience in dealing with financial issues as a lawyer in both government and the private sector,' she said. 'We are fortunate to have his counsel in this time of financial crisis. It is unlikely he will have any need to address the Hartford specifically in his work in the White House, and if he does he will recuse.'"

Kenneth P. Vogel and Mike Allen write for Politico that "at least a dozen former lobbyists have found top jobs in his administration, according to an analysis done by Republican sources and corroborated by Politico.

"Obama aides did not challenge the the list of lobbyists appointed to administration jobs, but they stressed that former lobbyists comprise a fraction of the more than 8,000 employees who will be hired by the new administration."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Pres: "The White House on Wednesday defended Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's choice of Mark Patterson — an ex-lobbyist from Goldman Sachs — to be his chief of staff."

Ian Swanson writes for The Hill: "'These waivers are supposed to be very select and very rare,' said Public Citizen's Craig Holman, who advised Obama's transition team as it crafted the lobbying rules. He said there are 'plenty of competent people' available to the Defense Department who do not work for major defense contractors.

"'The waiver we saw already was inappropriate,' Holman said of the exception granted to Lynn. He said Lynn has a vested interest in Raytheon, and could serve as a model for why the lobbying rules preventing conflicts of interest are necessary....

"Kenneth Gross, a lobbying ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, thinks Obama will face more pressure to issue waivers across his administration. ...

"Officials with expertise in housing, finance, trade, healthcare and energy will be needed across the administration, and Gross and others say that in order to hire the most qualified people, Obama will face pressure to hire those with lobbying experience. Restricting lobbyists from some appointments could force the administration to rely on more inexperienced help, or appointees from academia."

The highest-profile waiver thus far has been granted to William Lynn, to serve as deputy secretary of defense fresh from a stint as a lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon.

Mark Thompson writes for Time that "the idea that Lynn is 'uniquely qualified' — the White House's language — for the post is simply bogus. The phrase doesn't mean merely good or talented — it means that Lynn, of all the possible candidates for the position, is the only person who could fill it."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company