Over the past year or so, watchdog groups have been screaming bloody murder about the inappropriate ties between the White House and heavy hitters at Google. Tech competitors have complained, government agents have raised red flags that their was a cozy, and perhaps nefarious relationship developing between Google and the intelligence community as well (specifically the CIA).
Back in June, this story got a little bit of play because of a piece in the NY Times detailing the back door method employed by the Obama Administration to meet with lobbyists, and to put forth the false impression of an Administration that does not deal with lobbyists (unfortunately, this will all be forgotten by the next election). CREW - which stands for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - was amongst the first out of the gate to call this as it was, a deceitful attempt to get past sharing White House visitor logs that track these types of meetings.
Here at the Caribou on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a few other nearby coffee shops, White House officials have met hundreds of times over the last 18 months with prominent K Street lobbyists — members of the same industry that President Obama has derided for what he calls its “outsized influence” in the capital.
On the agenda over espressos and lattes, according to more than a dozen lobbyists and political operatives who have taken part in the sessions, have been front-burner issues like Wall Street regulation, health care rules, federal stimulus money, energy policy and climate control — and their impact on the lobbyists’ corporate clients.
But because the discussions are not taking place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they are not subject to disclosure on the visitors’ log that the White House releases as part of its pledge to be the “most transparent presidential administration in history.”
The off-site meetings, lobbyists say, reveal a disconnect between the Obama administration’s public rhetoric — with Mr. Obama himself frequently thrashing big industries’ “battalions” of lobbyists as enemies of reform — and the administration’s continuing, private dealings with them.
Attempts to put distance between the White House and lobbyists are not limited to meetings. Some lobbyists say that they routinely get e-mail messages from White House staff members’ personal accounts rather than from their official White House accounts, which can become subject to public review. Administration officials said there were some permissible exceptions to a federal law requiring staff members to use their official accounts and retain the correspondence.
Digging in to the very alarming, Nixonesque comment about White House officials hiding official communications by using their personal e-mails, watchdog groups uncovered major stuff about the relationship between Google and the White House - specifically dealing with Google's preferences regarding Net Neutrality.
We need to go back in time a little bit before we get to the nitty gritty of those e-mails, and whether or not we can expect Google's interests to come ahead of ours should push come to shove. The first thing you need to look at is the access Google has to the White House. Back in 2009, watchdog groups were again raising the alarm that Google was moving in to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Three senior Google execs, including a former Google lobbyist were given positions in this Administration - including oversight of the net neutrality efforts.
Two consumer groups today urged the White House not to move forward with the pending appointment of Google's top global public policy official to the position of Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House, saying it would violate the intent of President Obama's ethics rules meant to end the revolving door between lobbyists and the executive branch.
Although the choice of Andrew McLaughlin, Google's Director of Global Public Policy, for the position has been widely reported, it has yet to be announced by the White House.
In a letter to President Obama, John M. Simpson, consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog, and Jeffery A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, wrote: "Given Mr. McLaughlin's role over the years at Google, and most recently his position with its political action committee, any post at the White House would violate the intent of your executive order."
The letter said that Google's growing influence in government and on the economy is not the primary reason the appointment should be withdrawn. "We do not object to Mr. McLaughlin's appointment because he is associated with Google per se," the letter said. "The problem is that he has been a lobbyist for the biggest digital marketing company in the world, and we believe no special-interest connected person should assume a position of vital importance to the country's future. It would be just as inappropriate for a lobbyist from Microsoft, Yahoo! or any similar technology company to be appointed Deputy Chief Technology Officer."
As Google's Director of Global Public Policy, McLaughlin led a team of corporate policy advocates working to influence a wide range of issues in the United States and globally. Simply put, he has been responsible for Google's worldwide lobbying efforts. McLaughlin was a registered lobbyist in 2007 working on Google's behalf. The statement of organization for Google's political action committee, Google Inc. NetPAC, filed on March 16, 2009, lists him as the committee's assistant treasurer and its designated agent.
Since the start of the year, two senior Google (NSDQ: GOOG) executives have joined the Obama administration—and CEO Eric Schmidt has been appointed to the president’s advisory board on science and technology. Concerned in part over the company’s growing influence, two consumer groups are publicly opposing the appointment of a third Google executive to the White House. In a letter to the president dated Wednesday, Consumer Watchdog and the Center for Digital Democracy call for Obama not to move forward with the appointment of Google public policy chief Andrew McLaughlin as the nation’s deputy chief technology officer. “Given ... your commitment to a new standard for ethics in government, it would be a mistake to put Google’s top global policy person in a key leadership position with critical technology decisions for the federal government,” they write. The two groups note that in his post at Google McLaughlin lobbied on behalf of the company and that Obama has signed an executive order with the intent of limiting the role of former lobbyists in the White House.
So, what has Mr. McLaughlin been up to since he joined the White House? Back in May, it came out that he was using his gmail account to communicate with his former google co-workers about official business. The White House released the e-mails in question, which seemed at face value not to be too alarming (with one major exception).
Nearly all of the e-mails are innocuous. Most come from Googler Vint "Father of the Internet" Cerf—but these concern keeping Internet access running in Haiti during the US relief efforts and the operation of ICANN, not about Google (Big Government charged in April that McLaughlin was lobbying hard for Clearwire during the Haiti disaster, though the report is unsourced). And Cerf currently serves on a federal advisory board, so the communications would be legitimate conversation between government employees.
Only one e-mail from Cerf stands out: a February 2010 message in which he asks McLaughlin to read a third-party white paper on public/private ownership of open-access middle-mile Internet connectivity. Cerf recommends the paper, which the paper's author says would "really drive home the value of what Google is proposing with its Gigabit to the home initiative."
More problematic are connections between McLaughlin and current Google DC lobbyist Alan Davidson. In a November 2009 e-mail, Davidson sent McLaughlin an e-mail saying, "Incoming. We got this from a reporter."
It was a statement from AT&T, bashing McLaughlin for some pro-open Internet remarks he made. "PS we've teed it up for the OIC gang, so some of those folks will have your back," wrote Davidson. (OIC is the Open Internet Coalition, it seems, of which Google is a member.)
Google and OIC then tried to kill the story on McLaughlin. "We and a few OIC folks talked to reporters," wrote Davidson. "It's possible that killed it, which is probably driving Cicconi crazy. :]" (James Cicconi is AT&T's top DC lobbyist.)
McLaughlin thanked them for their help and engaged in some brief back-and-forth, telling Davidson that the White House too would "push back hard, which is helpful."
This was one of the interactions that got McLaughlin into trouble. Another came when the Google Buzz story hit and Big Government wrote its March piece on McLaughlin. He turned immediately to his private-sector colleague Davidson, asking him to help out in quashing the story.
If it were to have ended there, perhaps it wouldn't be quite so alarming a story - but it gets worse, because the White House was hiding some of the emails by the looks of things. It took an FOIA request by another watchdog group to get all of the emails (we can hope) released. These were not quite as innocent. It turned out that this former lobbyist was using his official e-mail to arrange off-site meetings about policy with Google folks (of course we all know that a former lobbyist cannot work on issues they used to be involved in).
In September 2009, McLaughlin agreed to meet with a representative of Wilmer Hale Cutler Pickering and Dorr who was a registered Google lobbyist as recently as 2008 according to Senate lobby disclosure records. The representative, Becky Burr, proposed a meeting to discuss White House assistance in weighing in with the Federal Trade Commission on privacy regulation in ways that would appear to benefit Google.
Over a two-week period in February 2010, McLaughlin exchanged numerous emails with Free Press director Ben Scott, another prominent advocate for Net neutrality who has coordinated policy strategy with Google and attended joint meetings with Google at the FCC and White House on numerous occasions. They agreed to meet outside the White House at a nearby coffee shop to discuss Internet policy.
From January through March of this year, several email messages relating to intellectual property issues were sent to McLaughlin from the Executive Director of a Google-funded coalition. The emails appear to have been sent to keep McLaughlin “in the loop” regarding copyright and intellectual property issues – key policy issues for the Mountain View company.
National Legal & Policy Center
PDF's of some of the actual e-mails:
So, we have a....no, really, we have THE former lobbyist for Google working in the White House (one of three former google execs in the Administration) who has been communicating with lobbyists for Google and associated interests improperly over his personal accounts, arranging off-site meetings to avoid showing up on the visitor logs, and further violating policy by working on issues, with companies he is prohibited from dealing with.
Does all of this underscore the point that Google might be working to do something nefarious? No - it doesn't prove that, but it does prove that Google has really, REALLY good access to the White House, that they do favors for each other with the press, and that they seem to be working together, or at least on the same page on issues such as net neutrality.
That's all I wanted to lay out up until this point.
So, let's say that Google really is up to no good with Verizon. Can we count on Congress perhaps to do the right thing?
Subcommittee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) demanded a recorded vote on a motion to subpoena White House technology officer Beth Noveck, after saying that the absence of a White House witness “undermines the purposes of the hearing and prevents us from doing our job of conducting oversight of this issue.”
Chairman Lacy Clay (D-MO) immediately called an unexpected recess, and members sat waiting for 15 minutes before the subcommittee reconvened
The vote on the motion to subpoena was then defeated.
Republicans on the Oversight Committee are investigating why White House deputy web chief Andrew McLaughlin was in contact with former coworkers at Google from his personal Gmail account. In the emails, McLaughlin discussed many of Google’s high priority lobbying issues, including FTC rules on online privacy, the administration broadband policy, net neutrality and intellectual property rules. House Republicans claim that the conversations over private email were in violation of federal ethics and recordkeeping rules, such as the Presidential Records Act.
At the hearing, a consumer watchdog testified that he believed the White House was too cozy with Google, and the company’s lobbying interests. “I do think that Google specifically has perhaps too close a relationship with the government,” said John Simpson, director of the Stem Cell Project. “I think Mr. McLaughlin’s appointment is one of those ties that are inappropriate.”
The White House has argued that McLaughlin’s violation of the rules was unintentional, and the web chief was reprimanded for the incidents in May.
Thursday’s hearing had been originally scheduled for June 24, and was supposed to include testimony by technology officer Novek, but it was postponed after Democrats learned committee Republicans were planning to grill Novek about alleged violations of recordkeeping rules. Novek did not appear at the rescheduled hearing.