WASHINGTON — In less than three years, President Donald Trump has named more former lobbyists to Cabinet-level posts than his most recent predecessors did in eight, putting a substantial amount of oversight in the hands of people with ties to the industries they're regulating.
The Cabinet choices are another sign that Trump's populist pledge to "drain the swamp" is a catchy campaign slogan but not a serious attempt to change the way Washington works. Instead of staring down "the unholy alliance of lobbyists and donors and special interests" as Trump recently declared, the influence industry has flourished during his administration.
The amount spent in 2019 on lobbying the U.S. government is on pace to match or exceed last year's total of $3.4 billion, the most since 2010, according to the political money website Open Secrets. Trump also has pulled in hefty contributions from industries with business before his administration, and his hotel near the White House has been a magnet for lobbyists and foreign interests since he was elected.
"An administration staffed by former industry lobbyists will almost certainly favor industry over the general public, because that's the outlook they're bringing to the job," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the think tank New America and author of the book "The Business of America is Lobbying."
Former lobbyists run the Defense and Interior departments, Environmental Protection Agency and office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The acting Labor secretary, Pat Pizzella, is an ex-lobbyist and Trump's pick to run the department, Eugene Scalia, also is an ex-lobbyist. Scalia's confirmation hearing before a GOP-controlled Senate committee is scheduled for Thursday and Democrats are expected to grill him on his long record of opposing federal regulations .
A seventh ex-lobbyist, Dan Coats, resigned as Trump's intelligence chief in August.
President Barack Obama had five former lobbyists in his Cabinet during two terms in office and President George W. Bush had three, also during eight years in the White House, according to lobbying and foreign agent disclosure records. The review was limited to the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations because prior to 1995 there was no central database of federal lobbying registrations and the law was hazy about who was supposed to register.
Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that revoked an Obama directive prohibiting lobbyists from being appointed to a post at a federal agency they'd lobbied within the last two years. While this "cooling off" period was cast aside, Trump's order continued to bar for two years lobbyists-turned-government-employees from participating in particular matters that they'd lobbied on during the two preceding years.
"Without the cooling off period, these Cabinet heads appear to be serving their former employers' and clients' special interests," said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump's Cabinet includes the heads of the 15 executive departments and seven other senior-level posts, such as EPA administrator and director of national intelligence. Obama's Cabinet had the same number of members and Bush's Cabinet had two fewer.
Scalia, the Labor Department nominee, has spent much of his career as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, where he ran up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations. Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, served for a year as the Labor Department's top lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.
His financial disclosure report lists 49 clients who paid him $5,000 or more for legal services, including e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, Facebook, Walmart and Bank of America. Disclosure records show Scalia was registered in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Pizzella has been the acting secretary since Alexander Acosta resigned the post in July amid renewed criticism of how, as a federal prosecutor, he handled a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pizzella lobbied for clients that ranged from Microsoft Corp. to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He also worked on several accounts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, although Pizzella was never accused of any misconduct or wrongdoing.
Obama chose Pizzella for a GOP seat on the Federal Labor Relations Authority and he was an assistant Labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration.
Two Trump Cabinet officials, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, have been accused by congressional Democrats and public interest groups of failing to honor their ethics pledges.
Both Bernhardt and Wheeler, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have played leading roles in the administration's rollback of environmental regulations. They also both worked at the agency they now lead during prior administrations.
Interior's inspector general launched an investigation of Bernhardt earlier this year after receiving seven separate ethics allegations against him. A complaint filed by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center alleged that shortly after joining the department in August 2017 Bernhardt became involved in matters that were the focus of his lobbying for California's Westlands Water District that lasted until mid-November 2016.
Westlands has federal contracts to provide irrigation water to 700 family-owned farms in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The complaint said Bernhardt had "lobbied on discrete provisions of a law directing Interior to maximize water supplies to his clients, and to minimize Endangered Species Act protections in that region."
Then, after joining Interior, Bernhardt breached his ethics pledge by directing government officials under him "to advance the particular matters he had previously lobbied on," according to the complaint.
"It is very hard to tell where Bernhardt's lobbying career ended and where his public service begins," said Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center's federal reform program.
An Interior spokesman said in a statement, "Secretary Bernhardt is and always has been committed to upholding his ethical responsibilities, and he has fully complied with those obligations."
Thomas Birmingham, Westlands' general manager, said the agency is actually disadvantaged with Bernhardt as secretary because he's not been able to engage with him as he did past Interior secretaries, like Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell.
"I don't know what Mr. Bernhardt has done or has not done at Interior," Birmingham said.
Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for eight years and his more than 20 different clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard on the Trump administration to grant a series of breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry.
"I think he's doing a great job," Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council, said of Wheeler. "We're pleased to see the regulatory reform agenda moving forward."
But Canter's organization, known as CREW, urged the EPA inspector general earlier this year to investigate whether Wheeler broke his ethics pledge. Among the allegations, CREW said Wheeler had participated in the easing of standards for storing coal ash in 2018 even though he had lobbied on those regulations the year before for Murray Energy.
The inspector general's office declined to say if it had open an investigation, directing a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
An EPA statement called CREW's complaint "baseless and just flat out false." It said Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and abides by all ethics requirements.
The Pentagon's top official, Mark Esper, spent seven years lobbying for defense industry juggernaut Raytheon, a company that stands to gain handsomely from Trump's push to boost military spending by billions of dollars. The company closed out 2018 by hitting a record $27.1 billion in net sales, up nearly seven percent from the $25.3 billion the year before.
Esper, who was secretary of the Army when Trump chose him to be defense secretary, faced opposition from only a handful of Democrats and he was confirmed in July by a 90-8 margin.
As Army secretary, Esper hasn't participated in Raytheon-related matters under the terms of an ethics agreement that runs through this November. After that, Esper told Pentagon ethics officials that he will continue to avoid Raytheon issues unless his participation as defense secretary is determined to be essential.
Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, lobbied primarily for steel companies between 1999 and 2003. Beginning in 2004, he represented just one company, U.S. Steel, which paid his firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, $3.2 million over a seven-year period.
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.