Mr. Ethics

Published: March 26, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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You’re trapped in an elevator with a guy who looks like a cross between Al Franken and a computer nerd. You’re a little uneasy.

Wait, he just put his hand in his pocket, reaching for… a BlackBerry.  You discreetly look over his shoulder to read: “Need your help!  Can you come… fast?”

Oh, it’s just Norm.

Norm Eisen is Mr. Ethics in the White House.  According to a Washington Post story (Mar. 13), anytime, every time someone in “…the new administration has a question regarding more than 1,000 pages of government ethics rules and regulations,” Norm gets the call.

“Want to hire a former lobbyist? Better call Norm.

“Want to brief a Cabinet member on Obama’s ethics policies? Call Norm.”

With an average of 15-20 calls per day, Norm is busy, very busy!

“Eisen, who was a classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School,” the Post writes, “helped craft an executive order that imposed the most far-reaching government ethics reform in decades, experts and historians said. But, for Eisen, the hard part is just beginning: He must ensure that the administration lives up to its own standards and adheres to its own rules.”

“Since late January, when a few senior officials were hired despite having tax problems or lobbyist connections, Eisen has become more central to the vetting process for administration positions. He recommends who should and shouldn’t be hired, reminding the Obama White House that its reputation is at stake.”

And more often than not, Eisen’s answer is “No.”  No to this, no to that.  In fact, one of Norm’s nicknames is “Mr. No.”

“Sometimes my job is to scare the bejesus out of everybody,” Eisen says.

“Shortly after Election Day,” the Post writes, “Eisen gave a series of PowerPoint lectures to explain the new rules: a 90-minute conversation with the president; a meeting with the first lady; a visit to every Cabinet secretary; regular group sessions for about 200 people, including everyone from interns to senior aides. Each new hire must receive ethics training within the first 90 days of employment and then at least once each year after that.”

“You’re not going to understand all the rules. It’s too complicated,” Eisen says. “So you use your common sense. How’s this going to look on the front page of The Washington Post? There are a lot of people who don’t set out to say, ‘I’m going to break the rules.’ They kind of take a baby step. Then they get in a little deeper, they realize they might have messed up, and they don’t tell anybody. Suddenly, you’re in serious trouble.”

I like this guy.

“I’m not saying that one dinner a lobbyist buys for you at the Ritz-Carlton is going to result in an outright bribe,” Norm says. “But does it make you a little more inclined to take his call? To hold a meeting? Do years of those dinners and golf retreats weaken you a little bit?

“Everybody has a reason why a particular lobbyist is meritorious, and a lot of them actually are meritorious,” Eisen says. “Those are very hard conversations. But we have to stick by the rules.”

The Post article points out that, “When the administration flirted with leniency during a week in January, granting a waiver to former Raytheon lobbyist and deputy defense secretary nominee Bill Lynn and explaining away tax problems for nominees Thomas A. Daschle and Timothy F. Geithner, senators and government watch groups said Obama had fallen short of his own standards. Daschle eventually withdrew from consideration; Lynn and Geithner were confirmed by the Senate after public apologies. ‘It was,’ Eisen said, ‘an awareness moment.’”

Ethics, it keeps Norm Eisen busy, or as that other Norm (fromCheers) would say, “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m wearing Milkbone underwear.”


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