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Despite promise to ‘drain the swamp,’ Trump administration waives ex-lobbyists into government

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s administration has granted about two dozen ethics waivers to ex-lobbyists and others now working in government — outpacing former President Barack Obama’s administration despite the new president’s promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington.

The Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday disclosed about a dozen such waivers handed out across federal agencies. That adds to the 14 waivers released recently by the White House. In all of Obama’s first year in office, records show, 22 ethics waivers were granted.

The Trump-era waivers, revealed after a battle between his administration and the top government ethics adviser, enable some government employees to work on some of the same issued they’d handled in the private sector.

Lance Leggitt exemplifies the type of Washington insider that Trump disparaged during the campaign as a creature of the swamp. Until becoming chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, Leggitt was a registered lobbyist and attorney in the health law practice group of a Washington megafirm.

Trump expressly forbade that type of employment history in a series of ethics policies he put in place shortly after taking office. But the Trump administration waived its own rules for Leggitt, the newly released documents show.

Seema Verma, the head of Medicare and Medicaid, obtained a waiver to work with states that she had previously called clients while she was a health-care consultant. Among the issues she handled for them? Navigating Medicare and Medicaid.

Her waiver notes that she must continue to recuse herself from anything that crosses with her spouse’s financial interests, which include the Indiana Health Group.

Verma’s need to work with states she previously called clients “outweighs any concern about a potential appearance of lack of integrity,” her waiver says.

Other ethics waivers deal with less serious matters. For example, several former Fox News employees who have become agency spokespeople were given waivers to ensure they weren’t running afoul of the ethics pledge by talking to their former employer.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, whose wife is a state representative in Georgia, received a waiver to discuss health policy with state officials there. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was granted a waiver to interact with the Australian government, which he needed because that country had paid him for a short-term teaching position.

The documents turned over by the agencies are all dated, underscoring what OGE Director Walter Shaub flagged as a troublesome issue with the ones disclosed earlier by the White House: 10 out of those 14 waivers are undated, making it impossible to assess whether the employees in question actually violated the ethics pledge before receiving a waiver.

“It’s concerning that some of the waivers are undated,” Shaub said last week. “Hopefully, the White House will follow up by sharing the dates on which these waivers were issued.”

That doesn’t seem likely.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer sidestepped a question this week about whether the White House would reveal the dates of the waivers, saying instead: “This had to do with the President’s pledge — so he is the ultimate decider on that.”

READ MORE: White House says it granted 14 ethics waivers to staff