The White House tried to distance itself from Katharine Weymouth’s “salons” this week, claiming that attendance by administration officials would not have been “consistent” with Barack Obama’s executive order on ethics. However, Politico reports that Obama issued a subsequent executive order that introduced a number of exemptions to his more highly-touted EO. The exemptions would have allowed officials to attend the Washington Post salons without repercussion, rubbing elbows with the lobbyists Obama demonized during the campaign:
[T]he White House counsel’s office, which has the authority to approve or reject invitations to appear at private events, could have cleared administration officials to accept the Post’s invitation without running afoul of Obama’s ethics executive order, according to most of the ethics lawyers consulted by POLITICO.
Obama touted his executive order as the strictest government ethics policy ever when he signed it on his first full day in office, but less than three weeks later, the independent agency tasked with implementing the order, the Office of Government Ethics, in consultation with the counsel’s office, issued a little-noticed memo inserting a number of exemptions into the order’s provision banning gifts – including meals and tickets – from lobbyists.
Among the exemptions were gifts from media organizations – even those that employee lobbyists, like the Post does. The memo cited “the unique constitutional role of the press in gathering and disseminating information,” but also the desire to protect administration official’s ability to attend “certain press dinners,” presumably referring to the annual black-tie soirees thrown by the White House Correspondents Association and the Radio and Television Correspondents Association.
This would explain why Kathleen Sebelius had yet to decide whether to attend the health-care salon. While the White House tried insisting that their new ethics rules would have prevented Sebelius’ attendance, they also announced that Sebelius had still been considering it when the story broke. Apparently, the training on ethics in the White House does not include Cabinet members.
What exactly does the subsequent memo say? Actually, it shows why Weymouth and other news media considered the salons a great revenue stream:
Similar considerations are relevant to gifts from media organizations. The LDA itself reflects solicitude for the unique constitutional role of the press in gathering and disseminating information. See 2 U.S.C. § 1602(8)(B)(ii). Likewise, the lobbyist gift ban is not intended to erect unnecessary barriers to interaction between appointees and journalists. This is consistent with concerns about the application of the OGE gift prohibitions to certain press dinners shortly after the Standards of Conduct became effective. See Memorandum from the Counsel to the President to All Agency Heads, December 21, 1993 (suspending enforcement of gift rule with respect to press dinners, pending revision of rule). Therefore, an appointee may accept a gift from an employee of a media organization, as long as the gift is permissible under the OGE gift rules, including any applicable exceptions. The only proviso, as discussed above, is that appointees may not accept a gift if the organization employee who extends the offer is actually a registered lobbyist.
This gives media organizations carte blanche to act as an influence-laundering middleman. If lobbyists can’t buy government officials fancy dinners any longer, why not just pay Katharine Weymouth to do it for them? Throwing in journalists is like the cherry on a pandering sundae. The new EO makes media organizations and non-profits the easy channel for influence peddling.
The White House did not answer honestly about WaPo’s salons. In fact, not only would it have been permissible for Sebelius and others to attend these soirees, Obama practically created the environment for them. Maybe that was his idea of a newspaper bailout.