Former Obama aides now working on Keystone pipeline proposal
WASHINGTON — The decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline is a political headache for President Obama. But to five of his former aides, it represents a business opportunity.
Four of them — Bill Burton, Stephanie Cutter, Jim Papa and Paul Tewes — work as consultants for opponents of the project, which would carry heavy crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. Another, former White House communications director Anita Dunn, counts the project's sponsor, TransCanada, among her firm's clients.
Keystone XL is just one of several upcoming administration decisions providing lucrative work for former Obama advisers on issues ranging from gun control to mining to legalized gambling. Just this week, three of Obama's top former political advisers — Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe — were given five-figure checks to deliver remarks at a forum sponsored in part by the state-run oil company in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which is in the midst of a campaign to burnish its image in Washington.
Obama came into office promising his administration would hew to higher standards than his predecessors did. He implemented rules barring former aides from directly lobbying the government for two years and frequently decries the influence of “special interests” in Washington.
But the efforts have done little to slow a tide of groups hiring former top aides as highly paid consultants, speakers and media advisers in an effort to influence the administration — part of a longtime Washington practice in which interest groups seek access to the White House by hiring people who used to work there.
The activities also pose a political challenge for Obama, who will be put in the position of making decisions on Keystone XL and other controversial issues that his former employees have taken sides on.
“Obama's made a really bold step trying to rein in the revolving door and keep people from cashing in on their executive branch experience, but some people are pushing the envelope and are trying to find ways around that,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
In a statement, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said, “Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we've done more than any administration in history.
“These restrictions are intended to avoid conflicts of interests but do not and should not prohibit former government officials from expressing their opinions or participating in a public exchange of ideas,” he added.
Those who hire former Obama aides say they hope to capitalize on their connections to the White House.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, said her group hired Burton, the former White House deputy press secretary, to highlight problems posed by Keystone XL. The State Department is still conducting an environmental review of the project.
“As a known quantity, he's able to bring attention to just how risky the pipeline is in a way that's beneficial,” she said.
Some, but not all, former Obama aides run their client lists by the White House; Dunn did so for two years after leaving the administration.
Dunn, Cutter and Tewes declined to comment.
Burton and Papa, who served as special assistants to the president for legislative affairs, are working for the Global Strategy Group.