Politics

Obama’s list of tech-related ethics problems grows

Jonathan Strong Contributor

A top ethics watchdog group is calling for yet another investigation into the Obama White House’s ethically and legally questionable use of technology – this time for bypassing electronic archiving requirements and visitor logs in holding hundreds of meetings with lobbyists at a coffee shop close to the White House.

Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), which recently called for an investigation into revelations reported by The Daily Caller, told House oversight committee Chairman Edolphus Towns, New York Democrat, in a June 28 letter he should launch an investigation into these latest charges, too.

At issue are hundreds of meetings at a Caribou Coffee close to the White House between high-ranking administration officials and top K-Street lobbyists. The meetings were reported by the New York Times June 24.

CREW, in its letter to Towns, said he should investigate “whether the White House is purposefully flouting its responsibilities under both the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act,” citing claims by the Times that the coffee-house lobbyist meetings were often initiated with e-mails from White House aides’ personal e-mail accounts – bypassing an archiving system – and appear geared towards hiding the meetings from disclosing them in a published list of visitors to the White House.

At issue legally is whether administration officials are conducting “official business” outside of record-keeping requirements in federal law. At issue ethically is an apparent attempt to hide from disclosure hundreds of lobbyist contacts by a White House which pledged to be the most transparent in history.

The lobbyist meetings join a growing list of technology-related ethics problems for the Obama administration. But while CREW and top GOP oversight official Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, are eager to get to the bottom of the problems, Towns appears less anxious.

Towns abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled for June 24 likely to be a showdown between the White House and Issa – Obama’s chief congressional tormentor. A spokesman for Towns cited a “scheduling conflict” as reason for the postponement.

In addition to the lobbyist meetings, the White House officially reprimanded one of its top technology officials, Andrew McLaughlin, in May for violating the president’s ethics pledge in communicating with his former employer and “inadvertently” bypassing e-mail archiving requirements.

While a spokesman claimed the breaches were isolated incidents a Daily Caller investigation revealed a cavalier attitude at the Obama White House toward longstanding safeguards designed to prevent abuses of the Presidential Records Act and other laws.

White House sources described a clash when Obama took the White House between a technology-savvy campaign culture and strict rules in the White House designed to protect the Presidential Records Act and other laws.

“A lot of new people came in [and] they were very hostile towards the career employees,” a White House source told The Daily Caller, “Basically, you know, whenever they made a technical decision, maybe something related to some of the safeguards we had in place for presidential records, as an example, well somebody who was career might say, ‘This is sort of how we’ve been doing things,’ and the political would say, ‘Well, new game in town,’ sort of thing.”

Additionally, two sources said a top White House technology official, Chief Information Officer Brook Colangelo, routinely asked technology vendors for special deals based on his position as a public official.

“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.

Inside the White House, the use of personal iPhones and Blackberries is ubiquitous. Those personal phones could be used for legitimately private purposes such as letting a spouse know when one is coming home.

But evidence is mounting that top White House officials have been using their phones as a convenient way to e-mail lobbyists and others about policy issues – e-mails that should be preserved for the historical record under the Presidential Records Act and Federal Records Act.

The problems are compounded by the claims on ethics and transparency Obama has made. As CREW noted in its letter to Towns, “Upon entering office, President Obama promised an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability in his administration.”

While Towns is not taking aggressive action to investigate the issues, Issa would if Republicans win the House. The ethics problems could come to haunt the Obama White House in a new way if Issa obtains subpoena power.