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Trump is Hiring Lobbyists and Top Ethics Official Says ‘There’s No Transparency’

President Trump has stocked his administration with a small army of former lobbyists and corporate consultants who are now in the vanguard of the effort to roll back government regulations at the agencies they once sought to influence, according to an analysis of government records by the New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica.

 

The Times adds new details to our previous reporting on Trump's weakening of ethics rules and former lobbyists working on regulations they opposed on behalf of private clients just months ago.

 

The Times scrutinized financial disclosures of top White House staffers and found that the lobbyists and consultants in their ranks had more than 300 recent corporate clients and employers, including Apple and Anthem, the insurance company.

 

One striking case involves Michael Catanzaro, an appointee on the National Economic Council whose portfolio includes energy and environmental issues. Catanzaro was formerly a lobbyist for oil and coal companies that strenuously opposed the Obama administration's clean power regulation. Three industry sources told the Times that Catanzaro is now working on that same issue in the Trump administration.

 

Even under Trump's weakened ethics rules, former lobbyists like Catanzaro are not supposed to work on issues that they formerly had lobbied on.

 

Still, under Trump's executive order, he can issue waivers at any time to staffers, Catanzaro included, for any reason, and never disclose it.

 

Even the federal government's top ethics official, Walter Shaub, who runs the Office of Government Ethics, is being kept in the dark.

 

"There's no transparency, and I have no idea how many waivers have been issued," Shaub told the Times.

 

At the Labor Department, there are at least two former lobbyists appointed by Trump who previously sought to influence agency regulations. One worked for a financial service firm fighting attempts to regulate financial advisers who manage retirement investments. Another, Geoff Burr, was the top government affairs official for the construction industry trade association, lobbying the agency on matters related to wages and workplace safety.

 

The hiring of dozens of lobbyists represents a reversal from Trump's statements during the campaign, when he said he would have "no problem" banning lobbyists from his administration.

 

The White House did not respond to specific questions from the Times. Instead, it offered this statement: "The White House requires all of its employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance and has aggressively required employees to recuse or divest where the law requires."

 

We've also reached out to the White House for comment.

 

In another blow to transparency, the administration announced Friday it will keep White House visitor logs secret, dropping the Obama-era practice of regularly posting that information.

 

Those logs offered the public a window into who was getting face time with the president and his staff. They were also used by journalists in countless stories: ProPublica, for example, used the visitor logs for a story last year about a lobbying campaign to push through a controversial airline merger. The logs showed that Rahm Emanuel visited the White House after meeting with airline executives who recruited him to push for the merger.

 

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The Trump Administration Lost Again in Court, This Time on Voter ID

A federal court in Texas has again ruled the state's 2011 voter identification law intentionally discriminated against minorities. It's the latest loss in the case for Texas — which has spent years unsuccessfully defending the law. But it also has implications for the Trump administration.

In February, the new administration abruptly abandoned the crux of the Justice Department's opposition to the voter ID law. Government lawyers also asked the judge to delay her decision on whether the law intentionally discriminated against blacks and Latinos.

 

Judge Nelva Ramos Gonzales rejected their request for a delay. And Monday, she ruled that the law "was passed, at least in part, with a discriminatory intent in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

 

When it passed in 2011, Texas's law had the country's strictest voter ID provisions. It required one of seven forms of Texas or federally issued IDs to vote and allowed exemptions only for disability or age. It allowed no exception for low income voters.

 

Civil rights groups have long argued that the law was meant to disenfranchise minority voters, who often lack the ID required. The Obama administration and other plaintiffs brought suit against the bill in 2013. They won in 2014, but Texas appealed. In 2016, a federal appeals court agreed the law had a discriminatory impact, but asked Judge Ramos to reconsider whether legislators had intended for that to be the case.

 

Last August, Ramos signed off on a compromise to temporarily fix the law ahead of the November election. Voters could sign an affidavit explaining why they didn't have ID, and then show an alternate form of non-photo ID to cast their ballots. Legislation that essentially locks that compromise in place is now being considered.

 

Proponents of voter ID argued that the case for intentional discrimination was no longer valid because of the new bill. Lawyers for the Trump Department of Justice echoed that perspective and urged Ramos to delay her decision until the new bill could work its way through the Legislature.

 

"Regardless of what the record was at the time, the record is clearly evolving," John Gore, the new deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ's civil rights divisionFEFF, told Ramos in a Feb. 28 hearing in Corpus Christi, Texas, which ProPublica attended.

 

Gore said empathically that the new legislation created "a new legislative mosaic." He added: "It paints a new picture of Texas' intent with regard to voter ID."

 

Over the course of Gore's arguments, which lasted only a few minutes, Ramos repeatedly asked him to explain how a bill proposed in 2017 would impact how she should rule on whether a law passed six years prior had been intentionally discriminatory. Gore did not give a direct answer.

 

Ramos dismissed the government's bid for delay last week, saying she would rule on whether the law was intentionally discriminatory "in due course." In her ruling issued yesterday, the judge wrote that Texas' passage and defense of the law "revealed a pattern of conduct unexplainable on non-racial grounds, to suppress minority voting."

 

While the state claimed the law was necessary to combat in-person voter fraud, Ramos noted that there is little evidence of such fraud.

 

The DOJ declined comment on the decision. Texas is likely to appeal the ruling.

 

Ramos has scheduled a hearing for June to decide on a remedy for the law, which could include putting Texas back under federal voting rights oversight.

 

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in January, saying the case had not yet worked its way through the lower courts. But the justices will have an opportunity to consider it again. If they do, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine's law school, "the newly reconstructed five conservative majority could well reverse on all claims."

 

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Official Involved in Bush-Era Purge of Gay Employees Now in Trump Administration

It was one of the uglier scandals of the Bush administration: Top officials at an agency dedicated to protecting whistleblowers launched a campaign against their own employees based on suspected sexual orientation, according to an inspector general report.

 

Staffers were abruptly reassigned from Washington, D.C., to a new office 500 miles away in Detroit in what the head of the office reportedly described as an effort to "ship [them] out." Staffers who refused were fired.

 

Crude anti-gay emails were found in the agency chief's account.

 

Now one of the major players in the scandal has a new assignment: He works in the Trump administration.

 

In December, James Renne was appointed to the Trump "landing team" at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as part of the transition effort between the election and the inauguration. He was then hired Jan. 30 in a senior role at the Department of Agriculture, though his exact job duties are not clear.

 

Renne was part of the wave of early political appointees on so-called "beachhead teams," whose role is to lay the groundwork for the new administration's policies. (We published details on hundreds of beachhead hires, obtained through public records requests.)

 

In the Bush administration, Renne was hired in 2004 as deputy special counsel of the Office of Special Counsel, the small federal agency that is supposed to protect employees across the government from retaliation for whistleblowing. The tenures of Renne and his boss, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, were almost immediately mired in controversy after career employees said they were improperly fired. Language stating that job discrimination protections extend to sexual orientation also disappeared from the agency website.

 

A little-noticed inspector general report, released in 2013, depicts Renne as a central player in the efforts. Bloch and Renne, it found, hatched the plan to abruptly open a new "Midwest Field Office" in Detroit and reassign career staff there. Employees who declined to move lost their jobs.

 

The report found that the employees were targeted for no legitimate reason, pointing to "facts which reflect that Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne may have been motivated in their actions by a negative personal attitude toward homosexuality and individuals whose orientation is homosexual."

 

One evening shortly after he was hired in 2004, Renne took the lead in removing the language from the agency's website about how job protections cover sexual orientation, the report says.

 

From the report: "Mr. Renne was depicted as intently searching the OSC website with the assistance of a senior career official to identify passages which interpreted [the nondiscrimination law] as extending protection to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. According to this account, Mr. Renne demanded that OSC's information technology manager remove these materials from the website immediately."

 

That change was later the subject of congressional hearings.

 

Renne did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Agriculture, which hired him, declined to comment.

 

The scandal at the Office of Special Counsel dragged on for years, spawning congressional and criminal investigations.

 

In a formal complaint filed at the time, the employees who were reassigned to Detroit pointed to a "Concerned Catholic Attorneys" letter Renne had signed in 2000 that is a broadside against a range of gay rights efforts. It warns that the "homosexual lobby's power has grown exponentially."

 

The inspector general report found that Renne played a central role in the plan to open a Detroit office, noting that "the reorganization was formulated by Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne very early in their tenure." An outside consultant they hired to help with the plan told investigators that "it appeared that Mr. Bloch may have been heavily influenced by Mr. Renne."

 

That consultant, retired Lt. Gen. Richard Trefry, told investigators:

Mr. Bloch indicated to General Trefry that there was a sizeable group of homosexuals employed by OSC, which had developed during the years prior to his taking office, that he "had a license" to get rid of homosexual employees, and that he intended to "ship them out."

 

The report continues:

Further, in the portions of Mr. Bloch's official e-mail account that were available to the investigative team, there were crude and vulgar messages containing anti-homosexual themes that appeared to have been forwarded from his personal email....Similarly, Mr. Bloch's public media references to [his predecessor as Special Counsel, Elaine] Kaplan contained repeated, negatively-phrased assertions regarding her sexual orientation. For example, in interviews he granted during 2007, Mr. Bloch described her as a "lesbian activist," a "public lesbian," a "well-known gay activist", and similar depictions.

 

Now in private practice, Bloch told ProPublica the report is "filled with untruth, outright falsehoods, and innuendo." When the report was released, Bloch denied that he ever talked about targeting gay employees.

 

The inspector general report says it was based on interviews with more than 60 people and examination of over 100,000 emails.

 

The affected employees ultimately came to a settlement with the government. The terms were not released.

 

During the investigation into his tenure, Bloch's home and office were raided by the FBI and he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge arising from his hiring the company Geeks on Call to do a "seven-level wipe" on his government computers. Years later, Bloch later unsuccessfully sued the government over his firing.

 

There's little public record of what Renne has been doing since his time working with Bloch. The Trump landing team announcement identified him as working for Renne Law. A fellow member of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence landing team said that Renne had worked at the ODNI inspector general office. And Bloch said he also heard that Renne had gotten a job in the intelligence community after their work together. An ODNI spokesman declined to comment.

 

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