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Biden’s incoming chief of staff revives White House financial transparency concerns

Fall foliage covers the North Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Washington, as a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents begins. (Jacquelyn Martin/G3 Box News)

Biden’s incoming chief of staff revives White House financial transparency concerns

Katherine Doyle

January 24, 04:00 AM January 24, 04:01 AM

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President Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Jeff Zients, has drawn attention as an example of influential decision-makers in the White House who are not required to disclose their financial interests to the public.

Zients led Biden’s COVID-19 response before coming back to the White House last fall to help scout potential appointees for the administration’s senior-most ranks in anticipation of a staffing shake-up.

But his return in October in an uncompensated role, according to reports, revived questions about the use of certain designations to allow staff performing important White House functions to bypass public financial disclosure. Such positions have generated controversy over perceived or actual conflicts of interest across presidential administrations.

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“Special government employees” are able to hold on to their private sector employment and are exempt from filing the public financial disclosures required by full-time presidential hires. Like a consultant, a so-called SGE generally holds the post for 130 days or less.

The White House published Zients’s financial disclosure during his earlier post but did not upon his return in October. Biden’s senior adviser, Anita Dunn, bypassed traditional disclosure rules during two earlier stints in the White House.

Zients, who directed the National Economic Council under former President Barack Obama, is slated to succeed outgoing White House chief of staff Ron Klain.

But it is not just Zients whose current financial holdings are withheld from public view. Some evade disclosure altogether by taking a salary below a certain level or holding a post that does not legally require informing the public what financial interests they hold.

While the practice makes it more difficult to understand what interests are influencing the president, it also suggests an effort to aggregate traditional agency decision-making inside the White House.

This appeared to be the case for incoming chief of staff Zients during his time as coronavirus czar, with Politico’s West Wing Playbook writing in 2021 that he and his then-21-person team took “the lead on Covid-19 more than Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the massive HHS bureaucracy.”

Reports indicate that Biden’s advisers on climate, the economy, and immigration have held more influence in shaping the president’s agenda than the Cabinet appointees leading his agencies.

These efforts shield the decision-making process from the bureaucratic demands typical of government agencies. It also suggests a bid to potentially aggregate authority within a White House outside the bounds of the Freedom of Information Act.

A review of federal records shows that while the White House head count contracted after Biden’s first year in office, he continues to employ hundreds of aides who have not filed public disclosures.

Disclosures from Biden’s first year in office showed 560 people working in the Executive Office of the President with salaries totaling some $50 million. In 2022, Biden had 474 White House personnel.

Estimates place the number of officials who have yet to file public financial disclosures at 430, meaning seven out of 10 aides over the past two years have not told the public what financial interest they hold.

Government ethics attorneys say greater transparency is needed.

“If there are this number of officials who are working in the White House who are participating in the decision-making process and the public has no idea about the possible conflicts that they may have, the financial investments that may be related to some of the companies that may be involved in the matters that they’re working on, that’s concerning,” said Mike Chamberlain, director of Protect the Public, a conservative watchdog group.

While there is no indication that the White House has failed to meet a legal obligation, the practice appears to run counter to the Biden administration’s claim that it is the most ethical and transparent in history.

“You would think that for an administration that claims to be the most ethical in history and the most transparent in history, just adhering to the letter of the law wouldn’t be enough. You would think that they would want to raise the bar a little bit higher,” Chamberlain added.

By comparison, former President Donald Trump’s White House employed 377 officials in 2017 and 374 in 2018, while former President Barack Obama employed 487 officials in 2009 and about 470 in 2010, according to a review of available data.

Government ethics attorneys say temporary employees should not be granted such influence over essential government functions.

“The lack of disclosures is relevant and is a problem,” said Jeff Hauser at the liberal Revolving Door Project. “From the White House standpoint, their budget is inadequate and stretched, so unpaid senior staff is even more attractive than unpaid interns. But unleashing unpaid or underpaid part-time staffers who can make policy without the ethics rules limitations on the behavior of full-time staff and without public transparency undercuts ethics laws.”

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Hauser said that while a president may have a circle of advisers who don’t necessarily draw a salary from the White House, loopholes permitting wealthy staff to shield their outside financial interests from the public should be closed.

“There will always be a kitchen cabinet of some sort, but if the only distinction between full-time staff and non-full-time staff is who is rich enough to duck a salary to avoid transparency … well, that is a distinction without a difference and is a loophole that needs filling in,” he said.

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