LTE: NYTimes Executive Branch Ethics: Let the Light Shine In


Letter to the Editor at the New York Times this morning. It’s worth posting in full.

Published: January 28, 2009

To the Editor:

President Obama’s executive order of Jan. 21, “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel,” is well intentioned but na├»ve and essentially unenforceable. The lobbying ban on “particular matters” perpetuates the same loophole that has made the federal “revolving door” criminal statute a dead letter since Congress first passed it decades ago.

For these ethics restrictions to work, there must be an open, publicly accessible reporting system where every executive branch appointee records meetings with registered lobbyists during and after working hours, both inside and outside the office.

I served as court-appointed independent counsel in the investigation and prosecution of Michael K. Deaver after he left the Reagan White House to open his own lobbying firm.

Mr. Deaver made millions from lobbying his former colleagues. Our legal staff found we could prosecute him only for lying to the grand jury about his lobbying activities. He easily evaded the revolving door criminal statute by using assistants to make direct contacts with executive branch officials, or simply by discussing a client’s objectives in generalities instead of “particular” matters. Through traditional law enforcement techniques and a lot of hard work interviewing witnesses, he was convicted of perjury and was fined and sentenced to community service.

If the president is really serious about ending closed-door lobbying of his administration, his staff should study our report, “Executive Branch Lobbying,” published by the Government Printing Office in 1989, to find out how to stop these abuses.

It can still be done by executive order, but transparency is the key. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, an electric light is the best policeman.

Whitney North Seymour Jr.

New York, Jan. 25, 2009