EPA Head Says He Needs to Fly First Class Because People Are Mean to Him in Coach

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has broken months of silence about his frequent premium-class flights at taxpayer expense, saying he needs to fly first class because of unpleasant interactions with other travelers.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke about his flight costs on Tuesday in a pair of interviews in New Hampshire, following a first-class flight to meet with the state’s Republican governor and tour a toxic waste site.

Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader he had some “incidents” on flights shortly after his appointment by President Donald Trump last year.

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” said Pruitt, who confirmed to the newspaper that he had flown first class from Washington to Boston before continuing on to New Hampshire. “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to have a 24-hour security detail that accompanies him at all times, even at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. He has also taken other security precautions, including the addition of a $25,000 soundproof “privacy booth” to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and spending $3,000 to have his office swept for hidden listening devices.

Pruitt said he was not involved in the decision for him to fly first class.

“There have been instances, unfortunately, during my time as administrator, as I’ve flown and spent time, of interaction that’s not been the best,” Pruitt told WMUR TV in Manchester, New Hampshire. “And, so, ingress and egress off the plane … that’s all decisions all made by our (security) detail team, by the chief of staff, by the administration. I don’t make any of those decisions. They place me on the plane where they think is best from a safety perspective.”

Pruitt was asked about the issue following a Washington Post report on Sunday that detailed some of his travel expenses, including a $1,641.43 first-class seat for a short flight in June from Washington to New York City. Pruitt’s ticket cost six times what EPA paid for his aides seated in coach.

The Associated Press reported in July and again in December that spending on commercial airline tickets purchased for Pruitt indicated he was flying in premium-class seats. EPA’s press office has repeatedly refused to comment on whether Pruitt was flying first class.

Federal regulations allow government travelers to fly business class or first class when no cheaper options are “reasonably available” or if there are exceptional security circumstances. However, past federal audits have found that those rules have been routinely violated by high-ranking government officials under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

[TIME]

Kellyanne Conway’s ‘opioid cabinet’ sidelines drug czar’s experts

President Donald Trump’s war on opioids is beginning to look more like a war on his drug policy office.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has taken control of the opioids agenda, quietly freezing out drug policy professionals and relying instead on political staff to address a lethal crisis claiming about 175 lives a day. The main response so far has been to call for a border wall and to promise a “just say no” campaign.

Trump is expected to propose massive cuts this month to the “drug czar” office, just as he attempted in last year’s budget before backing off. He hasn’t named a permanent director for the office, and the chief of staff was sacked in December. For months, the office’s top political appointee was a 24-year-old Trump campaign staffer with no relevant qualifications. Its senior leadership consists of a skeleton crew of three political appointees, down from nine a year ago.

“It’s fair to say the ONDCP has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward,” said a former Trump administration staffer, using shorthand for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has steered federal drug policy since the Reagan years.

The office’s acting director, Rich Baum, who had served in the office for decades before Trump tapped him as the temporary leader, has not been invited to Conway’s opioid cabinet meetings, according to his close associates. His schedule, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, included no mention of the meetings. Two political appointees from Baum’s office, neither of whom are drug policy experts, attend on the office’s behalf, alongside officials from across the federal government, from HHS to Defense. A White House spokesperson declined to disclose who attends the meetings, and Baum did not respond to a request for comment, although the White House later forwarded an email in which Baum stressed the office’s central role in developing national drug strategy.

The upheaval in the drug policy office illustrates the Trump administration’s inconsistency in creating a real vision on the opioids crisis. Trump declared a public health emergency at a televised White House event and talked frequently about the devastating human toll of overdoses and addiction. But critics say he hasn’t followed through with a consistent, comprehensive response.

He has endorsed anti-drug messaging and tougher law enforcement. But he ignored many of the recommendations from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential commission about public health approaches to addiction, access to treatment, and education for doctors who prescribe opioids. And he hasn’t maintained a public focus. In Ohio just this week, it was first lady Melania Trump who attended an opioid event at a children’s hospital. The president toured a manufacturing plant and gave a speech on tax cuts.

Much of the White House messaging bolsters the president’s call for a border wall, depicting the opioid epidemic as an imported crisis, not one that is largely home-grown and complex, fueled by both legal but addictive painkillers and lethal street drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

“I don’t know what the agency is doing. I really don’t,” said Regina LaBelle, who was the drug office’s chief of staff in the Obama administration. “They aren’t at the level of visibility you’d think they’d be at by now.”

Conway touts her opioids effort as policy-driven, telling POLITICO recently that her circle of advisers help “formalize and centralize strategy, coordinate policy, scheduling and public awareness” across government agencies.

That’s exactly what the drug czar has traditionally done.

Conway’s role has also caused confusion on the Hill. For instance, the Senate HELP Committee’s staff has been in touch with both Conway and the White House domestic policy officials, according to chairman Lamar Alexander’s office. But lawmakers who have been leaders on opioid policy and who are accustomed to working with the drug czar office, haven’t seen outreach from Conway or her cabinet.

“I haven’t talked to Kellyanne at all and I’m from the worst state for this,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, which has the country’s highest overdose death rate. “I’m uncertain of her role.” The office of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), another leader on opioid policy, echoed that — although Portman’s wife, Jane, and Conway were both at the event with Melania Trump this week.

Some drug abuse experts and Hill allies find a silver lining, noting that Conway’s high rank brings White House muscle and attention.

“If I want technical advice, I’m going to work with Baum,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), a co-chair of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force. “If I want to get a message to the president, Kellyanne is somebody that I know I can talk to.”

“It’s a really good sign that one of the president’s top advisers has been assigned to such an important topic,” said Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum.

Baum’s email called the drug office the “lead Federal entity in charge of crafting, publishing and overseeing the implementation of President Trump’s National Drug Control Strategy,” which multiple agencies review. He called Conway’s opioids cabinet an “interagency coordinating apparatus for public-facing opioids-related initiatives” and said that it was not overseeing national policy. But several administration officials did say her cabinet was indeed focused on a variety of policies.

Whatever Conway’s ties to the president, her career has been in polling and politics, not public health, substance abuse, or law enforcement.

Some of her “cabinet” participants do have a broad, general health policy background. But they don’t match the experience and expertise of the drug office’s professional staff. In her circle is Lance Leggitt, the deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council who was also chief of staff to former HHS Secretary Tom Price. Another top Price aide, Nina Schaefer, recently returned to the Heritage Foundation. The conservative think tank then touted her as having managed “the development of the HHS response to the opioid abuse crisis,” but when POLITICO recently tried to contact her, she said through a spokesperson she was not an expert on the topic.

Among the people working on the public education campaign that Trump promised is Andrew Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani’s 32-year-old son, who is a White House public liaison and has no background in drug policy, multiple administration sources told POLITICO. Nor has Conway spent her career in the anti-opioid trenches.

“Kellyanne Conway is not an expert in this field,” said Andrew Kessler, the founder of Slingshot Solutions, a consulting group that’s worked on substance abuse with many federal agencies. “She may be a political operative and a good political operative,” he added. “But look. When you appoint a secretary of Labor, you want someone with a labor background. When you appoint a secretary of Defense, you want someone with a defense background. The opioid epidemic needs leadership that ‘speaks’ the language of drug policy.”

The set-up befuddles other experts who’ve worked on substance abuse for prior administrations. Fresh ideas are fine, they say. But the drug office has a purpose.

“The whole reason we created ONDCP in 1988 was to be a coordinating force with power in the government and to bring together 20 agencies, many reluctant to be involved in drug control,” said Bob Weiner, who served in that office in both the George W. Bush and Clinton White Houses. “This is exactly when the agency should get maximum support from the White House,” he added.

An ONDCP spokesperson told POLITICO the office “works closely with other federal agencies and White House offices, including Kellyanne Conway’s office, to combat the opioid crisis” but declined to say whether the office’s career experts have attended any of her “opioids cabinet” sessions. The drug office is still crafting the annual drug control strategy, outside the Conway group, administration officials said.

A senior White House official confirmed that officials considered kicking off the media campaign with a big splash during the Super Bowl, but that fell through. Beyond that, many experts on drug policy and substance abuse say messaging alone won’t solve the problem anyway. People with addiction need treatment, and many people get addicted in the first place to painkillers their doctors have prescribed. An ad campaign won’t solve that.

One big test for the drug office will come when Trump releases his budget Monday, which is expected to slash the office’s budget, turning much of its work over to HHS and the Department of Justice. Both departments are developing their own opioid approaches; in past administrations, the drug czar would have coordinated. Lawmakers are already sounding the alarms over the budget plan.

A bipartisan group of senators last week wrote a letter to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, urging him to reconsider and maintain the office’s programs that “prevent and fight against the scourge of drug abuse.”

Pushback to a similar proposal last year led the Trump administration to reverse the decision and maintain the office’s budget. Lawmakers hope that there will be a similar outcome this time — along with a smarter utilization of the drug policy office.

“What we haven’t seen is the kind of coordination of critical programs that ONDCP has traditionally done,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, another state with one of the highest overdose death rates in the country.

Trump officials say it was the Obama administration that began undermining the drug policy office, demoting the director from the Cabinet, shrinking the staff and stressing the health aspects more than a law enforcement-focused “war on drugs.” They say the emergency requires a new approach.

Bob Dupont, who served as the second White House drug czar under President Gerald Ford, before the formal drug policy office was created, and still informally advises the Justice Department on drug policy, believes the White House will eventually realize it needs the expertise that ONDCP has to offer.

The West Wing doesn’t “have the staff or capability” to carry out drug policy work like ONDCP does, Dupont told POLITICO. “I don’t think swashbuckling your approach is going to last very long.”

[Politico]

Trump’s top health official traded tobacco stock while leading anti-smoking efforts

The Trump administration’s top public health official bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her leadership of the agency charged with reducing tobacco use — the leading cause of preventable disease and death and an issue she had long championed.

The stock was one of about a dozen new investments that Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made after she took over the agency’s top job, according to documents obtained by POLITICO. Fitzgerald has since come under congressional scrutiny for slow walking divestment from older holdings that government officials said posed potential conflicts of interest.

Buying shares of tobacco companies raises even more flags than Fitzgerald’s trading in drug and food companies because it stands in such stark contrast to the CDC’s mission to persuade smokers to quit and keep children from becoming addicted. Critics say her trading behavior broke with ethical norms for public health officials and was, at best, sloppy. At worst, they say, it was legally problematic if she didn’t recuse herself from government activities that could have affected her investments.

“You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance,” said Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007. He described the move as “tone deaf,” given the CDC’s role in leading anti-smoking efforts.

Even if Fitzgerald, a medical doctor and former Georgia Department of Public Health commissioner, met all of the legal requirements, “it stinks to high heaven,” Painter said.

A Health and Human Services Department spokesman confirmed “the potentially conflicting” stock purchases, saying they were handled by her financial manager and that she subsequently sold them.

“Like all presidential personnel, Dr. Fitzgerald’s financial holdings were reviewed by the HHS Ethics Office, and she was instructed to divest of certain holdings that may pose a conflict of interest. During the divestiture process, her financial account manager purchased some potentially conflicting stock holdings. These additional purchases did not change the scope of Dr. Fitzgerald’s recusal obligations, and Dr. Fitzgerald has since also divested of these newly acquired potentially conflicting publicly traded stock holdings.”

After assuming the CDC leadership on July 7, Fitzgerald bought tens of thousands of dollars in new stock holdings in at least a dozen companies later that month as well as in August and September, according to records obtained under the Stock Act, which requires disclosures of transactions over $1,000. Purchases included between $1,001 and $15,000 of Japan Tobacco, one of the largest such companies in the world, which sells four tobacco brands in the U.S. through a subsidiary.

The purchases also include between $1,001 and $15,000 each in Merck & Co., Bayer and health insurance company Humana, as well as between $15,001 and $50,000 in US Food Holding Co., according to financial disclosure documents.

On Aug. 9, one day after purchasing stock in global giant Japan Tobacco, she toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, which researches how the chemicals in tobacco harm human health, according to financial forms obtained from HHS’ Office of Government Ethics and calendars obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The records confirm that Fitzgerald sold the shares of tobacco on Oct. 26 and all of her stock holdings above $1,000 by Nov. 21, more than four months after she became CDC director.

Fitzgerald, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has made tobacco efforts a focus of her public health career, despite owning stock in the industry. She listed tobacco cessation as one of her primary priorities while still serving in the Georgia position in February 2017. Prior to accepting the CDC position, she owned stock in five other tobacco companies: Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, and Altria Group Inc. — all legal under Georgia’s ethics rules. HHS did not respond to questions about why she invested in tobacco companies while working to reduce tobacco consumption.

“It’s stunning,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It sends two messages, both of which are deeply disturbing. First, it undermines the credibility of a public official when they argue that tobacco is the No. 1 preventable cause of disease. Second, and perhaps even worse, it indicates a public official is willing to put their personal profit above the ethics of investing in a company whose products cause so much harm.”

“It gives you a window, I think, into her value system,” said Kathleen Clark, a professor of law focusing on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis. “It doesn’t make her a criminal, but it does raise the question of what are her commitments? What are her values, and are they consistent with this government agency that is dedicated to the public health? Frankly, she loses some credibility.”

While holding the newly purchased tobacco, drug company and food stock, along with other financial holdings in various health companies, Fitzgerald participated in meetings related to the opioid crisis, hurricane response efforts, cancer and obesity, stroke prevention, polio, Zika and Ebola, according to a copy of her schedule between Aug. 1 and Oct. 27.

Merck, whose stock Fitzgerald purchased on Aug. 9, has been working on developing an Ebola vaccine and also makes HIV medications. Bayer, whose stock she purchased on Aug. 10, has in the past partnered with the CDC Foundation, which works closely with the CDC, to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

“If she participated in meetings in which she has financial conflicts of interest, that is not fine in my book,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. Because some of the meetings took place before Fitzgerald had an ethics agreement, Holman said she “could have an easy avenue for excusing herself,” by saying she didn’t understand it was a conflict, or arguing she didn’t make decisions in those meetings. “But that is not how the law should be applied,” he added. “Even if you could claim you didn’t speak up at those meetings, your presence poses a conflict of interest.”

But it could have been possible for Fitzgerald to participate in briefings on topics like tobacco or Ebola without violating government ethics policy, depending on her role, said a former government ethics official. For example, if Fitzgerald was just in listening mode and not making any substantive comments or decisions, she would likely be within the rules, the official said.

Fitzgerald has already been criticized by some lawmakers for her inability to offload two financial holdings, which date to before she became CDC director and left her unable to perform some tasks, such as testifying in front of lawmakers. An HHS spokesperson said she is actively working to address her remaining recusal obligations related to the two companies, adding that both have “complex transfer restrictions.”

HHS officials said Fitzgerald’s lengthy divestment process was due to her complicated stock portfolio. They declined to say whether she had any ethics training. She didn’t enter into a formal ethics agreement with HHS until two months after taking office.

“It’s a little concerning it took two months to get her ethics agreement signed and an additional month for her to dump conflicting stock,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The Health and Human Services Department declined to respond to detailed questions about Fitzgerald’s investments, including whether she herself approved the transactions and what activities and decisions she recused herself from due to her holdings.

Normally, senior government officials commence the process of outlining their conflicts of interest before they assume a job, so that they can quickly divest within days of taking office, a former HHS senior legal counsel told POLITICO.

HHS lawyers usually advise employees to avoid purchasing new stock during an interim period, particularly in areas where they would likely need to divest. Fitzgerald’s ethics agreement, dated Sept. 7, identified nearly all the companies in which she bought stocks on the job as conflicts of interest.

But officials are liable for their actions, regardless of whether they have an ethics agreement in place or have been warned by ethics officials that a financial holding is a conflict, multiple former government ethics officials told POLITICO.

One reason Fitzgerald’s divestment may have taken so long is that the Office of Government Ethics has little ability to force government officials to speedily address financial conflicts, unless they are undergoing a Senate confirmation process, said Walter Shaub, who directed the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. The CDC director is not a Senate-confirmable post.

“There is a lot less transparency around the non-Senate confirmed individuals … and the ethics process lags, even though the rules still apply,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a government oversight group. “Those folks put themselves at risk by not getting clearance and understanding the rules.”

[Politico]

Officials raised ethics concerns over Ben Carson’s son assisting HUD event

Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expressed concerns that Secretary Ben Carson recently risked violating ethics rules by getting family help in organizing a HUD event last year, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Linda Cruciani, HUD’s deputy general counsel for operations, and other department officials were reportedly uneasy that Carson’s son and daughter-in-law were involved with last summer’s “listening tour” event in Baltimore.

They worried that Ben Carson Jr., who is a local businessman, was inviting potential business associates to the event, which “gave the appearance that the secretary may be using his position for his son’s private gain,” according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post.

Carson denies any conflict of interest. He said in a statement to the newspaper that his family has “never influenced any decision at HUD.”

The event in question was reportedly aimed at gathering feedback from area business leaders. Carson’s wife, son and daughter-in-law ultimately attended multiple events in Baltimore last summer, according to the Post.

Carson Jr. reportedly promised Cruciani ahead of the event that “nothing we would do would be near a conflict.”

It is not the first time questions have been raised over Carson’s family involvement in his work, but Carson has repeatedly denied that his family overtly influences HUD decisions.

Carson, who briefly ran for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, was one of President Trump‘s earliest supporters after dropping out of the race. He was confirmed last March to be HUD secretary by a 58-41 vote, despite controversy over his lack of government experience.

Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, has rejected such criticisms, saying successful leaders surround themselves with the right people.

“I liken it to the CEO of a large medical center,” he said at an event last October. “They probably don’t know about infectious disease, or neurosurgery, or anesthesia or pathology. But they have a lot of people who do know a lot about those things.”

[The Hill]

Trump Nominee to Lead Indian Health Services Faces Claims of Misrepresentation

President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the troubled Indian Health Service appears to have misrepresented his work experience at a Missouri hospital to a Senate committee, according to former employees at the hospital.

The nominee, Robert Weaver, 39 years old, has “nearly two decades of experience in hospital, mental health administration,” the Trump administration said in announcing his candidacy.

Evidence of that experience cited on his publicly available resume and a formal document provided to U.S. senators includes his time at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., from 1997 to 2006.

On the résumé, he described financial roles he held at the hospital, including overseeing accounts receivable and the budget. In the document addressed to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee after his nomination, he said he worked in “supervisory and management positions” there, according to a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who is vice chairman of the committee. The committee is responsible for reviewing the nomination before the full Senate considers it.

The spokeswoman, Jennifer Talhelm, provided the information after the Journal contacted Mr. Udall’s office seeking information about Mr. Weaver’s representations.

She said Mr. Weaver, a member of the Quapaw tribe of Oklahoma, told the Senate committee that his leadership experience qualifies him to lead the IHS, a roughly $6 billion federal agency that operates 26 hospitals and oversees medical care for more than 2 million Native Americans.

However, former St. John’s managers in some of the areas where he said he worked don’t remember him: “I don’t recall that name whatsoever,” said Augusto Noronha, who was chief financial officer of the hospital from 1999 until 2005.

“I’ve never heard that name before,” said Wayne Noethe, a former controller at the hospital.

Another former executive, Bob Henderson, who was director of patient financial services, said he recalled a subordinate named Rob Weaver who registered E.R. patients, gathered insurance information and collected copays, and who eventually supervised a few other patient-registration workers.

Asked whether that constituted a leadership role, Mr. Henderson said, “Well, I guess it would depend upon how you look at leadership.” Other former St. John’s officials described this as an “entry level” job.

The Journal cross-checked each account of a former St. John’s employee’s tenure and roles with at least two of their old colleagues.

A spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman, John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, said the committee would look into the Journal’s findings of inconsistencies concerning the nominee’s credentials and make sure “all these questions and others are fully answered by Mr. Weaver.”

Mr. Weaver, in a brief phone call Thursday, referred all questions to U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees the IHS, but said: “There’s a lot more to this story than what you are apparently being told” and declined to elaborate.

An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the agency and Mr. Weaver stood by past representations about his hospital experience.

The spokeswoman said “any suggestion Mr. Weaver is unqualified to run IHS is a pure act of character assassination.”

She declined to comment on his titles at St. John’s, his responsibilities, or whom he supervised, but forwarded statements from Dottie Bringle, a former chief nursing officer at St. John’s. The statements said Mr. Weaver “provided oversight for responsibilities including great communication, organizational skills, problem-solving skills as well as the ability to work well with others.” One said his roles included “oversight of many other team members.”

Ms. Bringle confirmed the statements were hers, but declined to elaborate.

The HHS spokeswoman sent the Journal a series of statements by tribal leaders, citing Mr. Weaver’s qualifications. Three of them said Mr. Weaver “has worked with the IHS system for nearly two decades.” Asked by the Journal what constituted his IHS experience, the spokeswoman said he had needed the system as a patient, especially when he was a child, and pointed to his career in health care.

Mr. Weaver’s nomination was sent to the U.S. Senate for confirmation in October. The next leader of the agency, which hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015, will face daunting challenges: Two of the IHS’s hospitals have been banned from the Medicare program for failing to meet U.S. requirements for care. The agency has struggled with staffing problems and allegations that negligent treatment led to numerous patient deaths.

Mr. Weaver told senators that U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, first suggested the idea of his nomination to be IHS director during a March 2017 meeting between the two men, according to Ms. Talhelm. A spokeswoman for Rep. Mullin confirmed Mr. Weaver’s account.

A spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Mercy health system, which acquired St. John’s Regional Medical Center in 2009, said the company couldn’t verify Mr. Weaver’s positions because some of its records were destroyed in a 2011 tornado that leveled parts of Joplin and badly damaged the hospital.

The HHS spokeswoman said Mr. Weaver’s own copies of employment records were also destroyed in the tornado.

His résumé states that he worked at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in “various hospital administration positions, including managing all accounts receivable, budgets, patient access and physician recruitment.”

He told Mr. Udall in a meeting that his management roles included, in his first few positions, oversight of 80 to 100 staff members, Ms. Talhelm said. The document provided to senators also described “leadership roles” at a large health system, Ms. Talhelm said. He didn’t mention working at any other health system other than St. John’s, she said.

Asked what evidence of his St. John’s roles Mr. Weaver offered, Ms. Talhelm said, Mr. Weaver at first couldn’t recall his titles at the hospital and provided a “list of nonspecific positions.”

Rhonda Foust, who worked in finance at the Joplin hospital from 1981 to 2010, said she doesn’t recall crossing paths with Mr. Weaver. “I was the budget coordinator during that whole time,” she said.“If this person was over budgets, I would have known them.”

Jane Obert, a longtime manager who served as compliance officer among other jobs from 1992 to 2008, said that his name didn’t ring a bell to her. “I was involved in every single physician contract deal for that whole period that he claimed to work there. Anyone in physician recruitment would definitely interact with me.”

Diane Sadler, an accounting manager at the hospital from 1993 until 2010, said she worked “side by side with accounts receivable” and never met Mr. Weaver. “I’m sure I would have remembered the last name Weaver because that was my grandmother’s last name,” she said.

Mr. Henderson, the patient-financial services director who remembers a subordinate named Rob Weaver, said he seemed like a sharp young man and stood out for his confidence and ability to resolve conflict. Still, he said he didn’t recall Mr. Weaver ever overseeing accounts receivable or working in budgeting or physician recruitment, or regularly participating in the leadership meetings while working under his chain of command. Mr. Henderson left the hospital in 2006.

He said that the department where Mr. Weaver worked included about 35 people and that he recalled Mr. Weaver may have supervised a portion of them, but didn’t oversee the whole department.

“I’m sure that Robert has probably grown in his skills and abilities since that time,” Mr. Henderson said.

While some tribes say Mr. Weaver’s unconventional background is needed to lead IHS, other tribal officials and medical associations have questioned whether, if accurate, the credentials Mr. Weaver has claimed qualify him for the job—or for addressing the agency’s current challenges.

After Mr. Weaver’s nomination, the Association of American Indian Physicians published a list of what it says should be the minimal qualifications for an IHS director. It includes at least five years of clinical experience and, preferably, a medical degree, neither of which Mr. Weaver has.

One of Mr. Weaver’s resumes says that he attended Missouri Southern State University and that he studied “International Business w/ emphasis in Marketing and Accounting; Minor in Spanish; Minor in Vocal Music & Piano.” It doesn’t say that he graduated.

A spokeswoman for the university, Cassie Mathes, said Mr. Weaver attended from 1996 through the fall of 2001, pursued a BA in Spanish and was listed as “degree seeking” as of 2001 but never graduated. The timing indicates that he attended college during some of the years he worked at the Joplin hospital.

The HHS spokeswoman said Mr. Weaver had changed his major from Spanish to international business.

His experience also includes working as a self-employed insurance salesman and benefits consultant, according to his résumé and current and former clients of his business. Oklahoma licensing records show he obtained his license to sell insurance products in 2007 and formed a series of companies.

Kay Rhoads, the principal chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, which hired Mr. Weaver’s company to negotiate its health-insurance rates last year, said Mr. Weaver did a good job in getting cheaper rates for the tribe. Ms. Rhoads said Mr. Weaver’s background would bring more financial accountability to IHS.

Ms. Rhoads added, “We’ve had people with medical backgrounds for years and it hasn’t worked.”

The last IHS director to be confirmed by the Senate, Yvette Roubideaux, was a medical doctor with three degrees from Harvard. Dr. Roubideaux, who has faced intense criticism of her stewardship of the agency from 2009 to 2015, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

[Wall Street Journal]

Mulvaney installs 6 Trump loyalists at CFPB after revelations of anti-administration ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ uprising

Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has installed six Trump loyalists in the agency. The news comes in the wake of revelations about a cadre of anti-Trump CFPB employees who called themselves “Dumbledore’s Army,” a reference to an anti-fascist underground group of students in the Harry Potter books.

As The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reports, Mulvaney announced in a Thursday memo his intention to bring those administration loyalists into the bureau that “by statute, is supposed to be an independent agency that was created in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis.”

Mulvaney’s short tenure at the helm of the CFPB has already been rife with controversy. In late November, President Donald Trump named him acting director of the agency when the former director stepped down. The move immediately caused scandal because Mulvaney also leads the White House’s Office of Management and Budget — and because the outgoing director had already named his former chief of staff, Leandra English, as his interim successor. Soon after, news that Mulvaney was directing staff to “disregard” English appeared — hence the cabal of resisters within the agency.

As The Washington Post reported shortly after it became clear Mulvaney was taking the reigns of the agency despite mounting legal challenges, the job makes him one of the most powerful men in the country.

The director of the CFPB, a federal judge quoted by the Post once noted, “enjoys more unilateral authority than any other officer in any of the three branches of the U.S. Government, other than the President.”

Of his six new hires, Grim noted Thursday, only three will work full-time for the agency — the other three, like the director himself, will split their time between the supposedly-independent bureau and their other jobs within the Trump administration.

[Raw Story]

Homeland Security Senior Adviser Was Right-Wing Radio Host Who Promoted Birtherism

A Department of Homeland Security senior adviser to the White House was formerly a conservative radio host who “promoted conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace, lamented the “Zimbabwe-fication of America,” and mocked the LGBT community,” according to a report by CNN’s KFILE.

Frank Wuco joined the White House in January after spending several years as a radio host in Florida, and his hardline views on Islam have been previously reported – as well as a jihadist character named Fuad Wasul he would often dress up as for videos warning of Islamic extremism.

CNN’s KFILE combed through dozens of hours of Wuco’s radio show, and found a trove of controversial comments from the man who now leads a team working to enforce President Donald Trump’s executive orders, including his controversial travel ban:

On the radio, Wuco said Obama knew nothing of the “black American experience,” defended the initial speculation in the media that Muslim extremists were responsible for the mass killing in Norway, and said that gay people had hijacked the word “gay” from happy people.

Wuco, a former naval intelligence officer, also happens to have something in common with Trump: he touted the birther conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, even referring to the former president’s birth certificate as “a questionable document.”

Acting DHS press secretary Tyler Houlton defended Wuco in a statement to CNN, saying “Mr. Wuco works every day to keep the American people safe by helping to implement the President’s security-focused agenda, including raising the global bar for vetting and screening of potential terrorists.

“Years-old comments cherry picked from thousands of hours on the air have no bearing on his ability to perform his job for the American people,” Houlton said.

[Mediaite]

Trump judge nominee, 36, who has never tried a case, wins approval of Senate panel

Brett J. Talley, President Trump’s nominee to be a federal judge in Alabama, has never tried a case, was unanimously rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Assn.’s judicial rating committee, has practiced law for only three years and, as a blogger last year, displayed a degree of partisanship unusual for a judicial nominee, denouncing “Hillary Rotten Clinton” and pledging support for the National Rifle Assn.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a party-line vote, approved him for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

Talley, 36, is part of what Trump has called the “untold story” of his success in filling the courts with young conservatives.

“The judge story is an untold story. Nobody wants to talk about it,” Trump said last month, standing alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the White House Rose Garden. “But when you think of it, Mitch and I were saying, that has consequences 40 years out, depending on the age of the judge — but 40 years out.”

Civil rights groups and liberal advocates see the matter differently. They denounced Thursday’s vote, calling it “laughable” that none of the committee Republicans objected to confirming a lawyer with as little experience as Talley to preside over federal trials.

“He’s practiced law for less than three years and never argued a motion, let alone brought a case. This is the least amount of experience I’ve seen in a judicial nominee,” said Kristine Lucius, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The group was one of several on the left that urged the Judiciary Committee to reject Talley because of his lack of qualifications and because of doubts over whether he had the “temperament and ability to approach cases with the fairness and open-mindedness necessary to serve as a federal judge.”

Some conservatives discount the ABA’s rating. “The ABA is a liberal interest group. They have a long history of giving lower ratings to Republican nominees,” said Carrie Severino, counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network, which supports Trump’s nominees. She said past liberal nominees have been rated as qualified even if they had little or no courtroom experience.

Talley does have some other qualifications, some traditional, others less so. He grew up in Alabama and earned degrees from the University of Alabama and Harvard Law School. He clerked for two federal judges and worked as a speech writer on the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. And, like many people who eventually became federal judges, he became the protege of someone who became a senator.

In Talley’s case, the mentor was Republican Sen. Luther Strange, the former Alabama state attorney general who was appointed to the Senate in January to replace Jeff Sessions, who left the Senate to become U.S. attorney general. Talley worked for Strange as a deputy.

Typically, senators play the lead role in recommending nominees for the federal district judgeships in their state. Talley also had something of an inside track. This year, when Sessions moved to the attorney general’s post, Talley took a job in the Justice Department’s office that selects judicial nominees.

Trump and McConnell have succeeded in pushing judicial nominees through the Senate because the Republicans have voted in lockstep since taking control of the chamber in 2014.

When Trump took office in January, there were more than 100 vacant seats on the federal courts, thanks to an unprecedented slowdown engineered by McConnell during the final two years of President Obama’s term. The Senate under GOP control approved only 22 judges in that two-year period, the lowest total since 1951-52 in the last year of President Truman’s term. By contrast, the Senate under Democratic control approved 68 judges in the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

The best known vacancy was on the Supreme Court. After Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, McConnell refused to permit a hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee. Trump filled the seat earlier this year with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

The Alliance for Justice, which tracks judicial nominees, said Trump’s team is off to a fast start, particularly when compared with Obama’s first year. By November 2009, Obama had made 27 judicial nominations, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Trump has nominated 59 people to the federal courts, including Justice Gorsuch. That’s also a contrast with Trump’s pace in filling executive branch jobs, where he has lagged far behind the pace of previous administrations.

Liberal advocates are dismayed that Republicans have voted in unison on Trump’s judges.

“So far, no one from his party has been willing to stand up against him on the agenda of packing the courts,” said Marge Baker, vice president of People for the American Way.

Last month, when the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on several other nominations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Talley about his fervent advocacy of gun rights. In a blog post titled a “Call to Arms,” he wrote that “the President and his democratic allies in Congress are about to launch the greatest attack on our constitutional freedoms in our lifetime,” referring to Obama’s proposal for background checks and limits on rapid-fire weapons following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“The object of that war is to make guns illegal, in all forms,” Talley wrote. The NRA “stands for all of us now, and I pray that in the coming battle for our rights, they will be victorious,” he added.

A month later, he reprinted a “thoughtful response” from a reader who wrote: “We will have to resort to arms when our other rights — of speech, press, assembly, representative government — fail to yield the desired results.” To that, he wrote: “I agree completely with this.”

When pressed, he told the senators he was “trying to generate discussion. I wanted people to be able to use my blog to discuss issues, to come together and find common ground.”

In a follow-up written question, Feinstein asked him how many times he had appeared in a federal district court.

“To my recollection, during my time as Alabama’s deputy solicitor general, I participated as part of the legal team in one hearing in federal district court in the Middle District of Alabama,” he replied.

On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee approved White House lawyer Greg Katsas on a 11-9 vote to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and then approved Talley on another 11-9 vote. The nominations now move to the Senate floor, where a similar party-line result is expected.

[Los Angeles Times]

Leaks Show Wilbur Ross Hid Ties to Putin Cronies

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary in the Trump administration, shares business interests with Vladimir Putin’s immediate family, and he failed to clearly disclose those interests when he was being confirmed for his cabinet position.

Ross — a billionaire industrialist — retains an interest in a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that was partially owned by his former investment company. One of Navigator’s most important business relationships is with a Russian energy firm controlled, in turn, by Putin’s son-in-law and other members of the Russian president’s inner circle.

Some of the details of Ross’s continuing financial holdings — much of which were not disclosed during his confirmation process — are revealed in a trove of more than 7 million internal documents of Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm, that was leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The documents consist of emails, presentations and other electronic data. These were then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — a global network that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its work on the Panama Papers — and its international media partners. NBC News was given access to some of the leaked documents, which the ICIJ calls the “Paradise Papers.”

Overall, the document leak provides a rare insight into the workings of the global offshore financial world, which is used by many of the world’s most powerful companies and government officials to legally avoid paying taxes and to conduct business away from public scrutiny. More than 120 politicians and royal rulers around the world are identified in the leak as having ties to offshore finance.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the documents also contain references to offshore interests held by Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is no evidence of illegality in their dealings.

Ross’ widespread financial interests

In Ross’s case, the documents give a far fuller picture of his finances than the filings he submitted to the government on Jan. 15 as part of his confirmation process. On that date, Ross, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, submitted a letter to the designated ethics official at the department, explaining steps he was taking to avoid all conflicts of interest.

That explanation was vital to his confirmation, because Ross held financial interests in hundreds of companies across dozens of sectors, many of which could be affected by his decisions as commerce secretary. Any one of them could represent a potential conflict of interest, which is why the disclosures, by law, are supposed to be thorough.

“The information that he provided on that form is just a start. It is incomplete,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis. “I have no reason to believe that he violated the law of disclosure, but in order … for the Commerce Department to understand, you’d have to have more information than what is listed on that form.”

Ross, through a Commerce Department spokesperson, issued a statement saying that he recuses himself as secretary from any matters regarding transoceanic shipping, and said he works closely with ethics officials in the department “to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

The statement said Ross “has been generally supportive of the Administration’s sanctions of Russian” business entities. But the statement did not address the question of whether he informed Congress or the Commerce Department that he was retaining an interest in companies that have close Russian ties.

In his submission letter to the government, Ross pledged to cut ties with more than 80 financial entities in which he has interests.

Ross’s apparent ethical probity won praise, even before he signed the divestment agreement, from both sides of the political aisle.

‘Our Committee Was Misled’

The documents seen by NBC News, however, along with a careful examination of filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, tell a different story than the one Ross told at his confirmation. Ross divested most of his holdings, but did not reveal to the government the full details of the holdings he kept.

In his letter to the ethics official of the Commerce Department, Ross created two lists: those entities and interests he planned to get rid of and those he intended to keep. The second list consisted of nine entities, four of which were Cayman Islands companies represented and managed by the Appleby law firm, which specializes in creating complex offshore holdings for wealthy clients and businesses. The Wilbur Ross Group is one of the firm’s biggest clients, according to the leaked documents, connected to more than 60 offshore holdings.

The four holdings on the list of assets that Ross held onto were valued by him on the form as between $2.05 million and $10.1 million. These four, in turn, are linked through ownership chains to two other entities, WLR Recovery Fund IV DSS AIV L.P. and WLR Recovery Fund V DSS AIV L.P., which were listed in Ross’ financial disclosure prior to confirmation, but were not among the assets he declared he would retain. According to an SEC filing, those entities hold 17.5 million shares in Navigator, which constitutes control of nearly one-third of the shipping firm.

“You look at all of these names,” Clark said, referring to the financial entities, “and they actually look like a code. And what we actually have to do is find — in a sense — a code that decrypts what these names mean and what these companies actually do.”

She said the way the companies were listed was deliberately vague. “I would say this gives the appearance of transparency,” she said, referring to Ross’s disclosure documents. “It’s sort of fake transparency in a sense.”

The Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for executive branch oversight, approved Ross’s arrangement, and it was left almost entirely unchallenged by the Senate.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said members of Congress who were part of Ross’ confirmation hearings were under the impression that Ross had divested all of his interests in Navigator. Furthermore, he said, they were unaware of Navigator’s close ties to Russia.

“I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled,” said Blumenthal. “Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies.” Blumenthal said he will call for the inspector general of the Commerce Department to launch an investigation.

And a cursory look at Navigator’s annual reports reveal an apparent conflict of interest. Navigator’s second-largest client is SIBUR, the Russian petrochemical giant. According to Navigator’s 2017 SEC filing, SIBUR was listed among its top five clients, based on total revenue for the previous two years. In 2016, Navigator’s annual reports show SIBUR brought in $23.2 million in revenue and another $28.7 million the following year.

The business relationship has been so profitable that in January, around the time Ross was being vetted for his Cabinet position, Navigator held a naming ceremony for two state-of-the-art tankers on long-term leases to SIBUR.

The Kremlin’s inner circle

One of the owners of SIBUR is Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list. He has been barred from entering the U.S. since 2014 because authorities consider him a Specially Designated National, or SDN, who is considered by Treasury to be a member “of the Russian leadership’s inner circle.”

The Treasury Department statement said that Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector “have been directly linked to Putin” and that Putin had investments with a company previously owned by Timchenko, as well as access to the company’s funds.

Daniel Fried, who was the State Department sanctions coordinator under President Barack Obama, said the connection to Timchenko’s interests should have raised alarm bells.

“I would think that any reputable American businessman, much less a Cabinet-level official, would want to have absolutely no relationship — direct, indirect — … with anybody of the character and reputation of Gennady Timchenko,” Fried said. “I just don’t get it.”

Another major SIBUR shareholder is Leonid Mikhelson, who, like Timchenko, has close ties to the Kremlin. One of his companies, Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer, was placed on the Treasury’s sanctions list in 2014.

Included in the Appleby documents are details of an internal discussion that resulted in the law firm dropping Mikhelson as a client in 2014, over concerns regarding his financial affiliations.

“I would say to anybody who asked,” said Fried, “treat SDNs as radioactive. Stay away from them.”

A third shareholder of SIBUR – and deputy chairman of the board – is Kirill Shamalov, husband of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. After the wedding, Shamalov’s meteoric rise to wealth led him to own as much as 21.3 percent of SIBUR’s stock until April, when he sold off around 17 percent for a reported $2 billion.

“It’s a new generation which is currently being prepared and groomed… to inherit whatever power and wealth Putin’s team has accumulated over the past years,” said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister in Putin’s government who is now working with the opposition.

Milov also said companies like SIBUR are often the way sanctioned Kremlin insiders have to keep doing business despite restrictions.

The Commerce Department statement said Ross never met Timchenko, Mikhelson, or Shamalov. It said he was not on the board of Navigator in March 2011 when the ships in question were acquired, or the following February when the charter agreement with Sibur was signed. It said Sibur was not under U.S. sanctions now or in 2012. The statement said Ross was on the board of Navigator from March 30, 2012 to 2014, and that no funds managed by his company ever owned a majority of Navigator’s shares.

But as The Guardian reported Sunday, other public documents suggest a different story. A Navigator news release on March 2, 2012, said that Ross was already on the board at that point, and Sibur’s annual report for 2012 said the deal with Navigator was signed in March. In addition, Ross’ company issued a news release on Aug. 10, 2012, saying that the company had agreed to acquire a majority stake in Navigator.

Fried said he has no doubt of the connections between SIBUR and the Kremlin.

“If any senior official of the U.S. government, much less a Cabinet secretary … had any business dealings with sanctioned individuals, direct or indirect,” he said, “I would be appalled.”

Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said there needs to a close examination of whether Ross’ testimony to the Senate violated perjury laws. Painter also said Ross must recuse himself from all Russia-related matters because of the SIBUR connection.

“Secretary Ross cannot participate in any discussion or decision-making or recommendation about sanctions imposed on Russia or on Russian nationals when he owns a company that is doing business with Russian nationals who are either under sanctions or who could come under sanctions in any future sanctions regime,” Painter said. “That would be a criminal offense for him to participate in any such matter.”

[NBC News]

‘I’m The Only One That Matters,’ Trump Says Of State Dept. Job Vacancies

President Trump says: “I’m the only one that matters” in setting U.S. foreign policy, thus downplaying the importance of high-level jobs such as the assistant secretary of state, which is currently vacant.

“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me,” Trump said in an interview that aired on Fox News on Thursday night. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”

The president was responding to a question from Fox’s Laura Ingraham, who asked him, “Are you worried that the State Department doesn’t have enough Donald Trump nominees in there to push your vision through?”

Ingraham added, “other State Departments, including Reagan’s, at times, undermined his agenda. And there is a concern that the State Department currently is undermining your agenda.”

Trump said, “So, we don’t need all the people that they want. You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson. I tell my people, ‘Where you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.’ But we have some people that I’m not happy with their thinking process.”

Trump also briefly blamed Democrats for obstructing his nominees in the Republican-controlled Senate. He then said, “We don’t need all of the people. You know, it’s called cost-saving.”

The president’s remarks on his diplomatic corps came as he prepares to leave Washington for a five-nation trip to Asia, including stops in South Korea and China.

In August, concerns were raised that key East Asia jobs had been left empty as tensions rose between the U.S. and North Korea. Trump has not nominated an ambassador to South Korea.

For months, Trump’s administration has been criticized over budget cuts to the State Department and its pace of nominations for high-profile ambassadorships in Asia and the Middle East.

As NPR’s Michele Kelemen reported in September, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “has raised a lot of eyebrows, maintaining a hiring freeze long after it was lifted for the rest of the federal government. Secretary Tillerson has also hired outside consulting groups.”

For Trump, the approach extends beyond the State Department. His recent remarks echo what he said in October, when he told Forbes, “I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be — because you don’t need them.”

The president went on to complain about the “massive” size of some federal agencies.

As of last month, the Trump administration had installed roughly a quarter of the personnel needed to fill some 600 appointed positions that require Senate confirmation, as NPR’s Tamara Keith has reported.

[NPR]

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