CRONYISM in the Bush Administration

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New York – The Michael Brown debacle – the resignation of President’s former point man on disasters -- has raised questions about whether political connections, not qualifications, have helped an unusually high number of Bush appointees land vitally important jobs. ONLINE: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1109272,00.html

Among TIME’s examples:

-- At the Food and Drug Administration, TIME obtained internal e-mail messages that show scientists’ drug-safety decisions are being second-guessed by a 33-year-old doctor-turned-stock picker, Scott Gottlieb.

-- At the Office of Management and Budget, an ex-lobbyist with minimal purchasing experience, David Safavian, oversaw $300 billion in spending, until his arrest last week.

-- At the Department of Homeland Security, a well-connected White House aide with minimal experience, Julie Myers, is poised to take over a crucial post in ensuring that terrorists cannot enter the country again.

-- Inspectors General, the watchdogs at every federal agency, may be increasingly chosen for their political credentials than their investigative ones.

“Some of the appointments are raising serious concerns in the agencies themselves and on Capitol Hill about the competence and independence of agencies that the country relies upon to keep us safe and healthy and secure,” according to TIME’s Karen Tumulty, Mark Thompson and Mike Allen.

“These folks are really good at using the instruments of government to promote the President’s political agenda,” Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, tells TIME. “And I think that takes you well into the gray zone where few Presidents have dared to go in the past. It’s the coordination and centralization that’s important here.”

TIME reports specific examples of cronyism in the Bush Administration:

At the Food and Drug Administration, TIME has learned, a 33-year-old doctor-turned-stock-analyst has second-guessed the drug-safety decisions of career scientists. TIME has obtained two internal e-mails showing how Scott Gottlieb, appointed in July to the FDA’s second-ranked post, deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, has in recent weeks questioned two decisions.

One was not to approve a Oporia, a drug for osteoporosis, that could cost Pfizer $1 billion in annual revenue. Gottlieb also suggested it was "an overreaction" for the agency to halt the trial of a new multiple sclerosis drug, after three people developed a serious complications during the study, and one of them died. Gottlieb insists he would never interfere with drug approval decisions. “I would not be in a situation where I would be adjudicating the scientific or medical expertise of the (FDA) on a review matter,” he told TIME. “That’s not my role. It’s not my expertise. We defer to the career staff to make scientific and medical decisions.” Gottlieb defends his e-mails: “Part of my job is to ask questions both so I understand how the agency works, and how it reaches its decisions,” he told TIME. However, a scientist at the FDA tells TIME that the e-mails "really confirmed people's worst fears that he was only going to be happy if we were acting in a way that would make the pharmaceutical industry happy." Gottlieb's past ties with that industry are extensive. TIME also obtained an internal memo in which he agreed to recuse himself -- for up to a year -- on FDA decisions regarding nine companies "where a reasonable person would question my impartiality in the matter." FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford, who resigned unexpectedly last Friday, wrote in response to TIME’s e-mailed questions that Gottlieb is “talented and smart, and I am delighted to have been able to recruit him back to the agency to help me fulfill our public-health goals.” But others, including former FDA Commissioner Donald Kennedy, now executive editor-in-chief of the journal Science, say Gottlieb breaks the mold of appointees at that level who are generally career FDA scientists or experts well known in their field. “The appointment comes out of nowhere. I’ve never seen anything like that,” says Kennedy.

At the Department of Homeland Security, Julie Myers, 36, a well-connected but scantily credentialed White House aide, has been nominated to head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, with 20,000 government employees and a $4 billion budget. The ICE is on the front lines of the war against terrorism, as well as drug smuggling, human trafficking and illegal arms running.

TIME reports "her nomination is a symptom of deeper ills in a huge new bureaucracy that the Bush Administration resisted creating. Among those problems, they say, is a tendency on the part of the Administration’s political appointees to discard in-house expertise, particularly when it could lead to additional government regulation of industry."

TIME cites the example of the department's internal struggle to produce plans to assess the threat to various forms of shipping and transportation and make specific proposals for strengthening security. Two former high-ranking Homeland Security officials tell TIME plans were nearly complete to meet an April 1 deadline set by Congress when Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson abruptly reassigned that responsibility to the agency’s policy shop. Jackson was worried that presenting Congress with such detailed proposals would only invite it to return later and demand to know why Homeland Security had not carried them out. “If we put this out there, this is what we’re going to be held to,” says one of the two officials. Nearly six months after Congress’s deadline, TSA spokeswoman Amy Von Walter says the agency is in the process of declassifying the document and expects to post a short summary on its website soon.

Myers came before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee three days after the Sept. 12 resignation of FEMA’s Michael Brown. The session did not go well, TIME reports. “I think we ought to have a meeting with (Homeland Security Secretary) Mike Chertoff,” Ohio Republican George Voinovich told Myers. “I’d really like to have him spend some time with us, telling us personally why he thinks you’re qualified for the job. Because based on the résumé, I don’t think you are.” Myers, a special assistant handling personnel issues for Bush, barely meets the five-year minimum requirement for experience in law-enforcement management, but she has plenty of connections. She worked briefly for Chertoff as his chief of staff at the Justice Department’s criminal division, and two days after her hearing, she married Chertoff’s chief of staff, John Wood. Her uncle is Air Force General Richard Myers, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Julie Myers was on her honeymoon last week and was unavailable to comment on the questions about her qualifications raised by the Senate. Myers’ nomination could be in trouble, TIME reports. Chertoff did consult with Voinovich as requested, and the Senator’s office subsequently announced that his concerns about Myers’ qualifications had been satisfied. But other senators are raising questions, and Democrats have seized on Myers’ appointment as an example of the Bush Administration’s preference for political allies over experience, TIME reports.

At the Office of Management and Budget, an ex-lobbyist with minimal purchasing experience, David Safavian, oversaw $300 billion in spending, until his resignation Sept. 16 and subsequent arrest last week. A dozen procurement experts interviewed by TIME said Safavian was the most unqualified person to hold the job of administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy since it was created in 1974.

“Safavian is a good example of a person who had great party credentials, but no substantive credentials,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington watchdog group. “It’s one of the most powerful positions in terms of impacting what the government does, and the kind of job—like FEMA director—that needs to be filled by a professional.”

His political clout, federal procurement experts say privately, came from his late-1990s lobbying partnership with Grover Norquist, now head of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of the Bush Administration. Norquist has “no memory” of urging the Administration to put Safavian in the post, says an associate speaking on Norquist’s behalf. The White House was dismissive of any suggestion that he played a role. Clay Johnson, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget who oversaw the procurement post, adds that Safavian was “by far the most qualified person” for the job. Perhaps it also didn’t hurt that Safavian’s wife Jennifer works as a lawyer for the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees federal contracting. Safavian, 38, has been charged with lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s dealings with the Federal Government. Safavian had worked at a law firm in the mid-’90s with Abramoff, who was indicted last month on unrelated fraud and conspiracy charges. In 2002, The government alleges that Safavian lied when he repeatedly told investigators that Abramoff had no business dealings with the General Services Administration, where Safavian worked at the time. Prosecutors alleged last week, however, that Safavian worked closely with Abramoff—identified only as “Lobbyist A” in the criminal complaint against Safavian—to give Abramoff an inside track in his efforts to acquire control of two pieces of federal property in the Washington area.

Safavian, who is free without bail, declined to be interviewed for this story. His attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said the government is trying to pressure her client to help in its probe of Abramoff. “This is a creative use of the criminal code to secure his cooperation,” she said.

The 57 inspectors general in the Federal Government are often the last line of defense against fraud and abuse, TIME reports. But critics say some of the Bush IGs have been too cozy with the Administration.

A study by Representative Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, found that more than 60% of the IGs nominated by the Bush Administration had political experience and less than 20% had auditing experience—almost the obverse of those measures during the Clinton Administration. About half the current IGs are holdovers from Clinton.

Three weeks ago, TIME reports, Joseph Schmitz, who worked as an aide to former Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese and whose father John was a Republican Congressman from Orange County, Calif., quit his post at the Pentagon following complaints from Senate Finance Committee chairman Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa.

Grassley questioned Schmitz’s acceptance of a trip to South Korea, paid for in part by a former lobbying client, according to Senate staffers and public lobbying records, and Schmitz’s use of eight tickets to a Washington Nationals baseball game.

Those concerns came to light after Schmitz chose to show the White House his department’s final report on a multiyear investigation into the Air Force’s plan to lease air-refueling tankers from Boeing for much more than it would have cost to buy them. After two weeks of talks with the Administration, Schmitz agreed to black out the names of senior White House officials who appeared to have played a role in pushing and approving what turned out to be a controversial procurement arrangement. Schmitz ultimately sent the report to Capitol Hill, but Senators are irked that they have not yet received an original, unredacted copy.

Congressional aides said they are still scratching their heads about how Schmitz got his job, according to TIME. He now works for the parent company of Blackwater USA, a military contractor that, in his old job, he might have been responsible for investigating.

TIME Contact: Diana_Pearson@timeinc.com 212-522-0833