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Did Google employees-turned White House appointees violate Obama’s ethics pledge?

By   /   August 15, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 4 of 6 in the series The Google Administration

Some former Google employees-turned Obama administration officials may have violated the president’s own ethics policy in meeting with their former colleagues.

Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

GOOGLER: Megan Smith met with former Google colleagues several times within the first year of her appointment as U.S. chief technology officer.

Four White House staffers who previously worked for Google met with their former co-workers within a year of transitioning from the company to the Obama administration.

Google Transparency Project, the work of Campaign for Transparency, lists the staffers and number of meetings on its website.

Megan Smith, now the nation’s chief technology officer, and Mikey Dickerson, U.S. digital service administrator, held meetings with their old running mates at Google less than a month after moving over to the White House. Smith met 10 times with Google employees, in total, while Dickerson held five meetings with his former colleagues.

Alex McGillivray, deputy chief technology officer, and Nicole Wong, former deputy chief technology officer, also each had one meeting with Google employees.

All four worked for Google immediately before moving into government work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The timing of their meetings raises questions about a policy Obama implemented a day after taking office.

On January 21, 2009, Obama issued an executive order titled “Ethics Commitments By Executive Branch Personnel,” which has a “revolving door ban” clause that says:

“I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.”

While each executive agency appointee must sign an ethics pledge, the “Executive Order allows for a waiver when the literal application of the Pledge does not make sense or is not in the public interest,” the White House website says. The site lists the people on that list, but Smith, McGillivray, Dickerson and Wong are not on it.

As he entered office, Obama said he aimed to create “the most open, efficient and accountable government in history.”

While White House visitor logs show that those onetime Google employees met with former colleagues, they do not reveal the substance of the conversations.

Obama’s White House door has certainly proven to be open to Google. As Watchdog.org previously reported, company officials have visited the White House an average of more than once a week since Obama took office. And there are more than 250 instances of Google employees going to work for the federal government or vice versa during that span.

RELATED: Google employees have enjoyed revolving door during Obama administration

Campaign for Accountability, which is compiling the Google Transparency Project, said the meetings between ex-Googlers and their former colleagues “raise questions about President Obama’s commitment to keep business interests from exercising undue influence on his administration.”

Silicon Beat, the tech blog of the the San Jose Mercury News, reported in July that Campaign for Accountability is part of the New Venture Fund, which is heavily funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Flora Hewlett Foundation. Silicon Beat also reported “there’s nothing to suggest either the Gates or Hewlett foundations had any knowledge that their beneficiary was attacking Google.”

The White House media affairs office didn’t return Watchdog.org’s call seeking comment on the meetings between ex-Google employees and their former colleagues. Google, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

This isn’t the first time the Google-White House connection has been ethically questioned.

Andrew McLaughlin, deputy chief technology officer at the White House Office of Technology and Science Policy from July 2009 to January 2011, was reprimanded in 2010 for using his Gmail account for professional email exchanges and for violating restrictions on emailing his former colleagues at Google.

Photo from McLaughlin's website

MCLAUGHLIN: The former Google and White House employee got reprimanded for using person email for government business.

McLaughlin had conversations with Alan Davidson, Google’s director of U.S. public policy, on how Google should best respond to negative press.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., pressed McLaughlin on the issue then, saying the former Googler’s account on the social network Buzz indicated he remained in contact with “more than two dozen individuals currently employed by Google, Inc., including a number of senior lobbyists and lawyers.”

In a letter to McLaughlin, Issa said the use of the personal email account for official White House business showed a lack of transparency.

“The American people have a right to expect that White House employees are working to advance the public interest and not the interests of the lobby shops who formerly employed them,” Issa wrote. “The use of a Gmail account to communicate with lobbyists and evade transparency laws is at odds with President Obama’s promises to limit the influence of lobbyists.”

Consumer advocate John M. Simpson obtained about 120 McLaughlin emails through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2010, but those records showed that McLaughlin mostly ignored emails from his former colleagues or asked to be excluded from the conversations.

Simpson said the White House meeting data appears to “show flat-out violations of the ethics policy.”

“Given Google’s close relationship with the Obama administration it’s not surprising at all, unfortunately, and somebody needs to call them out on it,” Simpson told Watchdog.org. “The White House owes the public an explanation.”

Part of 6 in the series The Google Administration


Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.