Government Watchdog Investigates ‘Conflicts of Interest’ in Lawsuit Against Labor Department

Government Watchdog Investigates ‘Conflicts of Interest’ in Lawsuit Against Labor Department
The U.S. Department of Labor Building in Washington on March 26, 2020. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang

A government watchdog group has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor over its alleged refusal to release documents that could potentially show “conflicts of interest” issues among the department’s senior officials.

Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Oct. 10. According to its complaint (pdf), the group filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Labor Department on Jan. 25, seeking documents related to political appointees receiving waivers to ethics laws and regulations.

“The release of these documents is in the public interest because they will help the public understand which high-level Department officials have potential conflicts of interest, how the Department is addressing those conflicts, and whether officials are following the rules,” the complaint explains.

As of Oct. 10, the group wrote in the court document that the Labor Department had not made a determination concerning its FOIA request—well over the statutory period for federal agencies to make a decision.

“Through the Department’s failure to make a determination within the time period required by law, PPT has constructively exhausted its administrative remedies and seeks immediate judicial review,” the complaint says.

PPT Director Michael Chamberlain, in an interview with the Washington Examiner, which was the first to report on the lawsuit, said that people have the right to know.

“The American public deserves to be aware of the potential conflicts of interest that exist among officials making the policy decisions that affect their daily lives, things such as inflation, energy, health care,” Chamberlain said.

He added, “The majority of the waivers to ethics restrictions that Protect the Public’s Trust has uncovered have been obtained in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, and often only after we’ve been forced to go to court to get them.”

According to the complaint, PPT aims to obtain “all memoranda or documents” that the Labor Department’s designated ethics official has produced or received in connection to the Biden administration’s political appointees. The documents include waivers, communications, impartiality determinations, and records.

Ethics Pledge

The U.S. Office of Government of Ethics lists political appointees who have received limited waivers to President Joe Biden’s ethics pledge. Currently, the list doesn’t include anyone from the Labor Department.
On his first day as president, Biden signed an executive order (EO 13989) requiring executive branch appointees to follow certain ethics rules. One requirement is banning appointees from accepting gifts from “registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations.” There are also several “revolving door” restrictions, one of which is requiring incoming appointees to wait for two years before working on issues, such as regulations and contracts, related to their former employers or clients.

Another restriction bans lobbyists and individuals registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) from working for agencies they lobbied two years prior to their appointment.

Elizabeth Eurgubian, a former lobbyist at the Credit Union National Association, received a waiver (pdf) from the Biden administration in February to serve as director of the Office of External Affairs and Communications for the National Credit Union Administration. Without the waiver, she wouldn’t be qualified for the job under Biden’s ethics pledge.
In August, PPT issued a report (pdf) noting how the Biden administration was on pace to hand out more ethics waivers than the Trump administration, according to its tracker. According to the report, Biden handed out more than 65 waivers in the first 18 months of his presidency, while the Trump administration gave its appointees 73 waivers in the first 33 months.
“Waivers can help ensure the American public benefits from having the most highly-qualified people serving in the Federal government. But many of the waivers we are seeing—mostly after suing the agencies to hand them over—are quite concerning,” Chamberlain said in a statement accompanying the report.

“Activists are seemingly hired because of their conflicted relationships, and then ethics officials are forced to grant waivers allowing them to continue leveraging those relationships in order to perform their jobs,” he continued.

“This is hardly serving the American people in an ethical and transparent way. It’s also placing tremendous undue pressure on career ethics officials to hand these activists a free pass lest the Biden policy agenda suffer.”

PPT began its ethics waivers tracking project on June 1, 2021, and said at the time that it had filed FOIA requests with 16 federal agencies aiming to uncover waivers that hadn’t been made publicly available.
Labor Department officials didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment. 
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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