It was a major catchphrase of Donald Trump’s campaign: He would “drain the swamp” in Washington.
But once Trump took office, Washington’s Michael Biesecker wasn’t seeing it. Government officials, it appeared, were working on issues they lobbied for on behalf of private clients. He set out to track the administration’s hiring and measure it against Trump’s pledge.
It did not measure up.
Biesecker and colleagues Juliet Linderman and Richard Lardner found that at least 37 appointees across the government had been granted ethics waivers, allowing them to regulate the very industries in which they had worked. Their story is the Beat of the Week.
Biesecker began compiling the names of political appointees at the EPA, and filed a FOIA request for any ethics agreements and waivers issued to the appointees.
After the election, Biesecker began compiling a spreadsheet with the names of political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency, researching their backgrounds and noting past work as lobbyists, corporate lawyers and campaign operatives. Of the 59 EPA hires he tracked, about a third had worked as registered lobbyists or lawyers for chemical manufacturers, fossil fuel producers or other corporate clients.
Curious about how some of the hires could possibly be working at the agency without violating Trump’s executive order barring government officials from matters benefiting their former clients, he filed a FOIA request in August for any ethics agreements and waivers issued to EPA political appointees since the start of the administration.
After EPA finally released some of those waivers, Biesecker partnered with Linderman to investigate whether similar waivers were being issued across the government. They located dozens of ethics waivers online for a variety of agencies, as well as ethics agreements. Among them was a previously undisclosed waiver that had just been quietly posted for FBI Director Christopher Wray.
The reporters researched each recipient, including running their names through the Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database to determine the true scope of their potential conflicts – an important step, considering that some waivers were quite vague about exactly what the person did at their former jobs.
Lardner, newly named to the lobbying and influence beat in Washington, quickly contacted experts on government ethics who provided on-the-record context and reaction to the waivers AP had uncovered.
The story was widely quoted by other media, including Vox, and promoted in Politico's Playbook Power Briefing. Biesecker’s own tweet about the story from his personal account got more than 100,000 impressions, and was retweeted by CNN’s Jake Tapper, among others.
For their story that plumbed the depths of the swamp, Biesecker, Linderman and Lardner share this week’s $500 prize.