Did John Podesta commit a serious ethics violation?

Richard Pollock of the Daily Caller reports that John Podesta, a key adviser to President Obama, may have violated ethical rules by helping to formulate a new White House policy that seeks to end any future drilling for oil on Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge. The ethical issue arises because just before he came to the White House, John Podesta was paid $87,000 by a foreign billionaire devoted to preventing energy exploration on American land.

The billionaire is Hansjorg Wyss. According to Pollock, he hired Podesta as a “consultant.”

Wyss had been a major donor to Podesta’s Center for American Progress, contributing $4 million to the group during Podesta’s tenure. He has given more than $110 million to activist organizations since 2008 and spent $35 million to set aside from development a large chunk of land in Montana.

Various federal ethics rules, including the highly publicized “ethics pledge” Obama signed into law on his first day in office, preclude political appointees from engaging in issues of interest to a former employer. Political appointees are “not [to] work on any matter” if the work of their previous employer “would raise a question regarding the employee’s impartiality.” The law applies to White House officials.

The prohibition extends for two years. Podesta began working for Obama at the start of 2014.

Wyss, by virtue of his “consulting” payment to Podesta, would seem to be a “former employer” for these purposes. And it appears that Wyss had a strong interest in the issue of protecting Alaska’s coastal plain from oil drilling. Work by Podesta on behalf of an interest of a man who had recently paid him $87,000 would, I think, raise a question regarding Podesta’s impartiality.

Cleta Mitchell, a well-respected attorney who has played a leading role in trying to bring justice to those victimized by IRS targeting, agrees. She says:

So [Podesta] was just doing the bidding of a Swiss billionaire and he’s in the White House to do it. That’s pretty clear. If he didn’t recuse himself then that’s what he’s done.

This Washington Post article suggests that Podesta, rather than recusing himself, was influential in the decision to preclude drilling in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

Pollock notes that political appointees can avoid violating the ethics problem in question by getting an official waiver. He says it’s unclear whether Podesta ever sought or received a waiver; the White House press operation declined to address the matter. On the facts presented by Pollock, a waiver seems inappropriate.

Podesta is preparing to leave the White House. He is expected to take a top position with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

With his dubious ethical sense, Podesta will fit right in.

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