Facepalm Ratings Guide= Even if there's no conflict of interest, appearances matter.
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By JOE NEWMAN
For a guy who likes to talk about keeping lobbyists out of his administration, President Barack Obama sure doesn't mind making some notable exceptions.
Now comes the latest dust-up involving Vice President Joe Biden's hiring of Steve Ricchetti to be a senior advisor. That's the same Steve Ricchetti whom the Obama campaign in 2008 attacked for being a lobbyist/bundler for then Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Listening to the administration spin the hire is pretty funny. Ricchetti hasn't personally lobbied since 2008. What was he doing instead? He was running his, um, lobbying(!) firm.
Obama has taken legitimate and laudable steps to slow the revolving door between lobbying firms and the White House and reduce private interests' disproportionate influence on executive branch policymakers. The restrictions he passed upon taking office were unprecedented, and intended to reduce industry influence peddling.
But then there are those waivers and exceptions. Those are fine by us if they're used to bring public interest lobbyists into the fold. Not so much when they're granted to, say, a lobbyist for a top defense contractor.
Look, lobbying, per se, isn't a bad thing. There's a place in our democracy for it—citizens, and that includes those paid to represent special interests, have a right to directly petition their elected leaders.
But one only has to look to Jack Abramoff to see how the system can be corrupted when lobbyists with access to piles of cash are able to buy influence through gifts, perks, campaign contributions and in the worst cases—bribes.
President Obama was right to want to distance himself from their influence. But if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to expect to some flak when you (or your vice president) bend your own rules. Sorry, Mr. President, the buck stops with you—you and Vice President Biden earned four facepalms.
Penn's Awkward Silence on Academic Integrity
As chairwoman of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann is supposed to help set the standard for scientific and medical integrity.
Unfortunately, her university's handling of a recent ghostwriting controversy raises questions about what kind of standard she sets for her own campus, not to mention the nation.
Recently, Penn determined that allegations of research misconduct against two of its faculty were unfounded. In a July letter to President Obama, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) cited Gutmann's lack of action on the allegations, which POGO had raised in November 2010, as reason she should be removed from the bioethics commission.
But Penn’s March 1statement on the issue cleared the two researchers who, in writing a journal article about the prescription pill Paxil, incorporated material written by a firm hired by GlaxoSmithKline, Paxil's manufacturer.
The university acknowledged that what the researchers did would not be allowed today, but that the guidelines were not in place in 2001 when the article was published.
Here's the problem: Even if you accept the fact that the researchers can't be punished for something that wasn't explicitly prohibited when they did it, that shouldn't prevent the university, and Dr. Gutmann, specifically, from making a strong, unequivocal statement in support of scientific integrity by acknowledging that what happened in 2001 should not have happened, regardless of what the rules were at the time.
Instead, Penn released a statement that went above and beyond in making excuses for what happened. One academic critic rightly called it a "cop-out." It looks like faculty are getting a pass for profiting from having their names on work drafted by ghostwriters while students get nailed—even booted from the university—for plagiarism.
Dr. Gutmann owed more to the Penn students who look to her for leadership. Now, we wonder if Dr. Gutmann can look those students in the eye. For her silence, Dr. Gutman gets two facepalms.
Whistleblowers have Beef with Ex-USDA Official's Industry Ties
As the debate swirls over the use of an ammonia-treated ground beef filler, dubbed in the media as "pink slime," one part of the story caught our attention—the role that former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Undersecretary JoAnn Smith played in the product's approval in the early 1990s.
While the meat industry and USDA stand by the safety of the beef filler, ABC News interviewed two USDA scientists who said they had objected to the use of the product but were overruled by Smith, who was a Florida cattle rancher before being appointed to the USDA by President George Bush in 1989.
Smith, who did not respond to ABC's requests for an interview, left the USDA in 1993 and joined the board of directors of a company that was a main meat supplier to Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the maker of the filler product, according to ABC News, which also noted her position on the board had earned her at least $1.2 million over 17 years.
We have fundamental concerns when political appointees overrule staff scientists. The fact that Smith was an industry insider who later got paid by a company that benefitted from her decisions at the USDA is just another example of why the revolving door eats away at the public's faith in government. We'd like to know more about the safety of BPI's beef filler and why Smith felt compelled to overrule staff scientists, but based on the story so far, Smith gets three facepalms.
DARPA Chief Heads to Google, Taxpayers Wonder Who’s Feeling Lucky
After three years as director of the Pentagon's research arm, Regina Dugan, is leaving for what we're assuming is very well-paying, if yet unspecified, job with Google.
Interestingly, she is leaving the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, as the Pentagon's Inspector General continues investigations (at POGO’s request) into Dugan's ties to a DARPA contractor and DARPA’s conflicts of interest policies in general.
Dugan was a program manager at DARPA in the 1990s when she left to form a hi-tech firm called RedXDefense. While her knowledge of how DARPA works and her connections there may or may not have played a role in her company securing $4 million in DARPA contracts, it's safe to guess that it didn't hurt.
When she was appointed in 2009 to be DARPA director, she left RedXDefense in the hands of her father, who became CEO, and her uncle, who sat on the board of directors. It wasn't until news reports last year that we learned Dugan had filed disclosure forms with DARPA to show that not only did she still hold a financial interest in RedXDefense but that the company owed her $250,000.
She had also signed a recusal form when she became director that stated she would stay out of any decisions involving RedXDefense. That means she had no direct involvement in the $1.75 million in contracts awarded to RedXDefense after she became DARPA director.
Dugan may have done everything by the book. But in this case, the book seems to be missing a few important pages—like the one that should have required Dugan to divest her financial interests in RedXDefense.
We can only hope that the IG's report will produce some recommendations that would bring DARPA's ethics standards up to par. As a going away present, we're giving Dugan and DARPA four facepalms.
Joe Newman is POGO's director of communications.