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Former Industry Executives Hold Top Spots In Several Federal Departments

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Two years ago, former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke rode on horseback down the streets of Washington to begin his first day as secretary of the interior. He resigned that post in December, no horse in sight, amid a series of ethics investigations. His replacement took over yesterday. David Bernhardt was the agency's No. 2. He's also a former oil lobbyist. Also this week, there's a new acting head of the Defense Department. He's a former executive at a major defense contractor. In fact, former industry folks hold the top spots in several federal departments. Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter at The New York Times. He's been tracking this. He's here in the studio. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ERIC LIPTON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Can you start by giving us a snapshot of where some of these cabinet secretaries are coming from and how their previous work intersects with what they're doing now?

LIPTON: The regulated have become the regulators. At Department of Interior, you have a guy whose clients included Statoil and Noble Oil who now sets policies over oil and gas in United States access to federal lands. At EPA, you have a guy who worked for a coal company that now sets policies that radically affect coal companies in the United States. At HHS, Health and Human Services, you have a guy that was a former pharmaceutical industry executive who now sets policies on how much the federal government pays for drugs when it buys billions of dollars of drugs. At the Department of Defense, you have a guy who was a senior executive at Boeing. That's one of the largest - billions of dollars' worth of contracts with the Department of Defense. So each of these guys come from worlds that they now oversee.

CORNISH: What has that meant in terms of policy? We're two years into this administration. What have you seen?

LIPTON: I don't think that you see them doing special favors for their former clients. But they just come into the agencies with the mindset of the world that they come from. And so across the board, there are things happening that benefit the former sectors that they worked for.

CORNISH: So I want to come back to the acting secretary of the interior. What do we know about David Bernhardt?

LIPTON: David Bernhardt's client list is almost like a minefield of conflicts for someone who is running an agency. He represented an industry group that is the trade group for offshore oil and gas drillers. He represented a major utility that uses coal from the coal mines that his agency regulates. He represents an oil and gas company that has huge matters before the agency in terms of access to federal lands for drilling. So he has to work very hard to avoid getting involved in matters that affect his former clients.

CORNISH: Now, I thought there was a two-year ban on federal officials participating in matters where they used to deal as lobbyists or did lobbying.

LIPTON: Yeah, but the ban is a very narrow ban. The specific legal language is a particular matter involving specific parties. So if it's, for example, a regulation that broadly affects the oil and gas industry, and you were a former oil and gas industry lobbyist for one company, you're still allowed to be involved in setting that new rule that benefits your former client.

CORNISH: The flip side of this is that you have people who have a lot of knowledge and expertise in these areas who are now involved in policy.

LIPTON: Well, I mean, the issue is that we have a president who was elected by promising to drain the swamp and to take out special interests in Washington. And he's filled his cabinet - at least in his acting people because many of these are vacancies - with people who come from the same industries that they are now regulating. And so it's a lot like many other things that Trump says. What he says and what he does are often quite different.

CORNISH: For a long time, we were hearing about how difficult it was to fill various positions for this administration. Has that changed? And is this the way it's being dealt with?

LIPTON: Most of the people who are from the industry that are now in the positions leading various agencies were in deputy positions. And they have been elevated because their bosses, who were the secretaries of X or Y, have left. But one of the things that we're seeing is a pendulum swing. I mean, the - you know, during the Obama administration, it was more likely that you would see someone who had worked for a former environmental group or for an academic place. And they have, to some extent, conflicts of interest, as well. They have affiliations with nonprofits that they once worked for. But I have not seen such a radical shift as quickly as in the Trump administration in terms of people who put down their portfolio for the private sector and pick it up on behalf of the government within a matter of days or weeks.

CORNISH: That's Eric Lipton, investigative reporter for The New York Times. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

LIPTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.