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Connections Work for Ex-Trade Official

Public and private dealings with African governments highlight revolving-door issue.

March 02, 2004|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It is hardly unusual for high-level government executives here to leave their positions for lucrative jobs in the private sector.

But the case of Rosa Whitaker stands out as an example of why Washington officials are increasingly debating what constitutes a conflict of interest in such comings and goings.

Whitaker set up the first in a series of business relationships with African leaders and countries while still working as the U.S. trade representative's top official for Africa, according to sources, correspondence and other documents obtained by The Times.

After assisting a Nigerian governor with a trade program, Whitaker launched plans to create a private foundation with him once she left the government, the records show.

The incorporation papers for their organization, designed to attract foreign investment to his state, were signed on the day she left her job.

And within weeks, she had opened her own consulting firm that was to receive a management fee to run the new organization, according to documents provided by a source familiar with the transaction.

The arrangement with the Nigerian official was just the beginning for Whitaker, who had been the architect of a landmark trade law that eliminated U.S. duties on billions of dollars of selected African exports.

Six days after she left the trade office, she received a free round-trip ticket from the Ugandan government. Her consulting firm soon landed a $300,000-a-year contract under which she advised Uganda on how to benefit from the trade law she helped write.

By March, she had signed a contract with Ghana, also for $300,000 a year, to consult on the law, known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA.

"It looks like she's trading off on her expertise and credentials in a really blatant way," said Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group.

Whitaker said her private pursuits were aboveboard and approved in advance by the trade representative's office. "It's not a conflict to work in government and then come out and work on similar initiatives," she said.

She said she did not discuss the consulting contracts with Ugandan, Ghanaian or any other African officials until after she left office.

However, she declined to discuss the joint effort with the Nigerian governor. In a written response, Whitaker said that a list of questions The Times submitted about their organization was "full of offensive and inaccurate information," but she did not elaborate.

Federal ethics rules did not necessarily prohibit Whitaker's discussions with prospective business partners before she left office or her contracts with the clients afterward. Legal experts say the law is ambiguous, and a series of recent revolving-door cases has renewed concerns that restrictions do not adequately prevent conflicts of interest.

The Bush administration issued new rules in January that require White House clearance before senior political appointees can talk to prospective employers about jobs in the private sector. The order came after the administration's Medicare administrator left his post for private-sector jobs with two firms that have healthcare interests.

Another case drew scrutiny last year, when Boeing hired a former senior Pentagon official who had overseen some of the company's contracts while in government. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Times that committee hearings would take place this spring on "this constant revolving door, and incestuous relationship" between government and business.

Even as McCain moves to take action, the Senior Executives Assn., a group of active and retired federal employees, has been lobbying Congress to roll back a law tightening post-employment ethics rules that took effect this year.

Federal officials are covered by rules that bar them from using "public office for private gain" or seeking future employment that "conflict[s] with official government duties and responsibilities."

When they leave office, former officials are bound by laws that restrict their work on matters they handled while in government. The restrictions are intended to keep the prospect of a future job from influencing an official's decisions. The rules also attempt to discourage former officials from cashing in on the contacts they make in their government positions.

But the rules have been narrowly interpreted, and the Justice Department has rarely prosecuted former officials for violations.

"Ethics laws are intended to prevent people from financially benefiting from the contacts and inside information that result from high-level government work," said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and now executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "But they are written in such a way that it's almost impossible to violate them."

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