Biden Is Giving Ethics Waivers to Top Officials at a Quicker Pace Than Trump Did: Watchdog

By Nick Ciolino
Nick Ciolino
Nick Ciolino
Nick Ciolino covers the White House.
March 26, 2022Updated: March 26, 2022

The Biden administration is doling out more waivers meant to excuse public officials from violating ethics regulations than the preceding administration did.

Federal ethics law prohibits government officials from participating in matters in which they have a financial interest. They are also expected to recuse themselves from matters that would give the appearance of partiality and are not allowed to accept bribes or supplement their federal salary. However, there are some exceptions to ethics laws that can be granted though a waiver when it is deemed to be in the public’s interest.

President Joe Biden’s administration has granted at least 50 such waivers during his first 14 months in office, compared to 73 ethics waivers granted during the first 32 months of former President Donald Trump’s tenure, according to a report from the government watchdog group Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT).

“At the pace it set during its first 14 months, the Biden administration would far exceed the number of waivers and decisions awarded during the Trump administration,” PPT Director Michael Chamberlain told the Washington Examiner. “These are also spread out much more widely among agencies, meaning more of the people making the decisions that affect the American public are being given hall passes on their ethics obligations.”

While the Biden administration has made a number of these waivers publicly available on its Office of Government Ethics (OGE) website, 19 of the waivers were discovered through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests by PPT. The group says that several of its FOIA requests have gone unanswered and the existence of some of the waivers has not been made public, but instead has been disclosed in other records.

PPT says it has filed lawsuits against The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

This is despite the repeated assertion from Biden and his top officials that his administration is “the most ethical in history.”

Upon taking office, Biden issued an Executive Order on Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel, requiring appointees to pledge a commitment to conduct that will “restore and maintain public trust in government.” The order includes several vows to abstain from accepting gifts, lobbying and working with former employers.

“We have the highest ethical standards of any administration in history,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki during a briefing in June of last year. “A number of ethics officials have conveyed that, and we’re proud of that.”

The PPT report notes that “even more disconcerting” is the fact that the Biden ethics waivers are being granted at the leadership level in federal agencies “where the most significant decisions of the federal government are typically made.” The report says senior Biden appointees are “working with their former employers, clients, and on otherwise prohibited matters at an increasing rate.”

The officials to receive these waivers include CIA deputy director David Cohen, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Ag Secretary Thomas Vilsack, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, according to PPT.

Nick Ciolino covers the White House.