Politics

White House watchdogs call for investigation into Obama tech officials

Jonathan Strong Contributor

Key watchdog groups on Monday called on the White House to investigate revelations – first reported by the Daily Caller — that a top Obama technology official sought special discounts from technology vendors.

Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, a top GOP oversight official and President Obama’s chief congressional tormentor, slammed the White House for continuing to “refus[e] to answer very basic questions about technology being used by White House staff to evade accountability for violations of federal law.”

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said seeking special discounts is “inexcusable” and that the White House should investigate the circumstances regarding the incidents. “It would clearly be improper,” she said.

Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) said seeking discounts as a public official “clearly is over the line” set by federal procurement law and called on the White House to investigate and disclose further details about the incidents. “The reason for investigation could not be clearer,” Boehm said.

Weismann said new information about the use of personal e-mail accounts in the White House to bypass document archiving requirements in the Presidential Records Act was “troubling” but credited the White House for promptly investigating a previous incident on the same issue.

As reported by The Daily Caller on Friday, two White House sources said the technology-savvy Obama campaign clashed with restrictive rules designed to protect against abuses of the Presidential Records Act and other laws when Obama assumed office in January 2009.

The result was an environment broadly hostile to the safeguards and to non-political contractors and civil servants who sought to protect them.

The culture clash came to a head when two contractors were fired after accusations by key Obama aides of political sabotage.

Sources also said the use of personal phones to access Gmail and other personal e-mail accounts was ubiquitous and that White House Chief Technology Officer Brook Colangelo sought special discounts from technology vendors – even after he was told that such behavior violates ethics rules and potentially federal law.

“I heard the CIO talking to various technology vendors, saying … like, ‘You should give this to us for free because we’re the White House.’ And he actually said that to people,” one source said. A second source said Colangelo continued the practice even after having been confronted about its appropriateness.

A White House official responded to Daily Caller questions on the matter by saying, “The Office of Administration … does not ask for special treatment or deals from vendors.” The official also said, “The White House takes its [Presidential Records Act] obligations very seriously and the White House counsel’s office regularly briefs staff on their obligations under the [Presidential Records Act], as well as other applicable laws.”

Weismann cautioned that White House ethics and other rules are quite restrictive relative to the rules for campaigns and that new administrations can be expected to suffer some confusion upon entering the new administration.

However, she said this inevitable period of adjustment is “no excuse” for violating ethics rules or federal law and noted that the last two administrations had also struggled with the same issues.

“These problems with e-mail have plagued multiple administrations – the problem is well documented,” Weismann said.

The White House reprimanded its deputy Chief Technology Officer, Andrew McLaughlin, last month after a new Google product inadvertently revealed a list of which addresses he e-mails most frequently.

The list included numerous employees and lobbyists for Google, McLaughlin’s former employer. The White House said in May the e-mails violated the president’s ethics pledge and the Presidential Records Act.

Weismann praised the White House for its prompt investigation into McLaughlin’s e-mails and said they should similarly investigate new details reported by The Daily Caller.

Boehm criticized the investigation into McLaughlin and said their punishment was a “wrist slap” that was unlikely to prevent future abuses. But he called for a fuller investigation into McLaughlin’s e-mails and a new investigation into the newly reported details.

Issa, in his full statement to The Daily Caller, said the administration’s lack of transparency on the issue could harm efforts for the government’s use of technology.

“This White House tries to portray itself as the most web-savvy and transparent administration in history, yet it refuses to answer very basic questions about technology being used by White House staff to evade accountability for violations of federal law. A continued refusal to address this problem and hold accountable those who use personal e-mail or wireless devices for improper purposes will be a setback to transparency and efforts to utilize new technologies in government work,” Issa said.