Watchdog complains about consultant helping Nielsen's DHS confirmation

Kirstjen Nielsen at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 20, 2016. (World Economic Forum / CC-BY-2.0)

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A government ethics watchdog is calling for an investigation into potential violations of federal laws and ethics regulations by Homeland Security secretary nominee Kirstjen Nielsen, following CyberScoop reports that a consultant representing companies with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake had volunteered to help run her confirmation preparation.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center has asked federal officials — including Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to probe the matter.

Government departments aren’t allowed to accept voluntary work, for the same reason officials cannot accept valuable gifts — because of the risk it might create an obligation that could be repaid with an official act, explained the center’s Brendan Fischer.

“There’s a risk that such work would engender a feeling indebtedness on Nielsen’s part,” Fischer told CyberScoop, noting that DHS handed out $23 billion worth of contracts last year.

“It appears that Nielsen has been guided through the confirmation process by an individual whose clients have hundreds of millions in contracts before the agency she has been nominated to lead,” reads a CLC letter released Monday, referring to Thad Bingel, a former DHS official and Washington consultant. Last week, CyberScoop reported that Bingel was leading Nielsen’s confirmation preparation, assigning government staffers to prepare policy memos and coordinating her paperwork submissions to the Senate.

“There are strong reasons to believe he’s not doing this out of the goodness of his heart,” added Fischer, “He could be in a position to receive a financial windfall.”

CLC says it has worked for 15 years to “improve our democracy and protect the fundamental right of all Americans to participate in the political process.”

“If Nielsen in her official capacity as principal deputy White House chief of staff (or, for that matter, any other White House or DHS staffers), are accepting Bingel’s provision of professional services to the government without any compensation, then Nielsen is likely in violation of the Antideficiency Act,” reads the letter. The act makes it illegal to “accept voluntary services for [the] government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law.”

On the other hand, write CLC’s Larry Noble and Brendan Fischer, if Nielsen is accepting voluntary services from Bingel in her personal capacity, then  — as a current White House employee — she is likely violating the executive branch gift rules, which prohibit an employee from soliciting or accepting valuable gifts. “The value of Bingel’s gift is potentially very high, depending on his hourly rate,” according to the letter, sent to Sessions, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Office of Government Ethics acting Director David Apol. Kelly is Nielsen’s current boss.

“The consultant has clear financial incentive to assist in the nomination of an agency secretary who would have the power to steer government contracts in his direction,” added Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel at CLC in a statement. “This unusual arrangement should be investigated because of the clear potential conflict of interest, and the danger that Nielsen can be compromised as DHS Secretary.”

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Department of Homeland Security, DHS, Kirstjen Nielsen, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Trump White House
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