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By Rachel Leven
The White House granted an ethics waiver to an energy staffer to work on issues such as the EPA’s methane regulations, despite recently having lobbied for companies such as Devon Energy Corp. in 2017 on the rules.
A former Republican special counsel told Bloomberg BNA that the ethics waiver for Michael Catanzaro—special assistant to the president on energy issues, who previously lobbied as part of the CGCN Group LLC—is unique and concerning. It was rare for the past two administrations to allow individuals who had lobbied on an issue to come directly into the government and play a role in decision making, said Richard Painter, who served as an ethics lawyer for then-President George W. Bush (R).
Additionally, language in the Trump administration’s ethics executive order could indicate more of these kinds of waivers are to come, Painter told Bloomberg BNA.
“When you lobby on an issue, you’re paid to run all over Washington saying, ‘This is what the rule ought to be,’” Painter said. “Now, how do you with a straight face go into meetings, sometimes with the same people that you’ve been lobbying, and say, ‘This is what I think the rule ought to be’? It’s just to not going to happen.”
Catanzaro’s waiver was released by the White House late May 31 along with more than a dozen other waivers for staff. The release of the waivers comes as the Trump administration has been at odds with the Office of Government Ethics over the need to release these and other disclosures.
A White House spokesman said in an email the move is part of the president’s commitment to being transparent.
“The White House Counsel’s Office worked closely with all White House officials to avoid conflicts arising from their former places of employment or investment holdings,” the spokesman told Bloomberg BNA. “To the furthest extent possible, counsel worked with each staffer to recuse from conflicting conduct rather than being granted waivers, which has led to the limited number of waivers being issued.”
The Office of Government Ethics declined to comment to Bloomberg BNA on whether this kind of waiver approval is normal. Catanzaro also lobbied during his time at CGCN for Bloomberg LP, an affiliate of Bloomberg BNA.
Under the waiver, Catanzaro can lobby on energy and environmental policy issues, despite the fact that he was a registered lobbyist working in this issue area or on these issues within two years of his appointment as special assistant to the president.
The waiver specifically lists the “Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, methane regulations covering oil, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program under the Clean Air Act and the gas sector and the Renewable Fuel Standard” as issues on which Catanzaro can work, but the waiver doesn’t limit him to working on those issues.
“The Administration has an interest in you working on covered matters due to your experience and expertise on these issues,” the waiver says. “It is important that you participate in covered matters, and disqualification from such matters would limit the ability of the White House Office to effectively carry out its duties.”
Prior to joining the administration, Catanzaro also lobbied for energy companies affected by actions taken in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, including for Keystone XL pipeline owner TransCanada Pipeline Ltd., Senate filings show. Trump signed in January an executive order to advance the pipeline project, which Catanzaro disclosed lobbying on in the first three months of 2017.
Catanzaro has also disclosed lobbying for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Resolution Copper, the American Chemistry Council and Hess Corp., among other major clients.
This kind of situation under the last two administrations was rare, even though Bush didn’t have an executive order laying out transparency requirements, Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said.
Painter said he tried to restrict the one instance that he saw under Bush. That’s because, he said, it is difficult to put your reputation behind a client’s argument and then credibly change your viewpoint right away if you disagree with who was paying you, Painter said. The person was a lobbyist who had worked for the derivatives securities industry and was moving into a role at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Additionally, the language in Trump’s executive order doesn’t place any restrictions on when the White House can grant this kind of waiver. The Obama administration’s executive order said waivers could be awarded in limited instances, such as “exigent circumstances” related to the economy or national security.
The White House didn’t respond directly to Bloomberg BNA’s question as to whether it plans to make issuing these waivers the norm or whether they saw any conflict in these hiring practices. But Painter said this difference is concerning because it means the Trump administration can grant waivers “whenever they want.”
Asked what the Trump language portends, Painter said, “It signals that they’re planning to issue a lot of waivers.”
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The Catanzaro ethics waiver is at http://src.bna.com/prg.
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