Holding the Government Accountable

State Dept. Won’t Name Advisers Already in Government’s Public Database

Two former White House Chiefs of Staff, several former Members of Congress, and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

They’ve all been selected to advise the State Department on foreign policy issues. Their names are listed on the State Department’s website.

So why won’t the Department disclose that these individuals are special government employees (SGEs)?

For four months, State has refused to name its SGEs, ProPublica reported last week, leaving the public to guess which outside experts are advising the Department on matters that affect the public’s interest.

Yet, the Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers identified as SGEs in an online government database. In other words, some of the information that State has been refusing to provide is hiding in plain sight.

State’s “special” employees in fiscal year 2013 included John Podesta and Mack McLarty, who served as White House Chiefs of Staff in the Clinton Administration, and are now the Chairman of the Center for American Progress and President of international consulting firm McLarty Associates, respectively; Jane Harman (D-CA), a former Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee and current head of the Woodrow Wilson Center; Michael Mullen, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who now serveson the board of General Motors; Strobe Talbott, a State Department veteran who became the head of the Brookings Institution; and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a former Under Secretary of State who co-chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board.

ProPublica had asked State and other agencies for a list of their SGEs—a position created by Congress in 1962 enabling the government to solicit advice from outside experts. SGEs can’t work more than 130 days a year for the government, and they’re subject to some, but not all, of the ethics rules that full-time executive branch employees must follow.

Some SGEs are paid consultants to government agencies. One of State’s former SGEs, Huma Abedin—a close adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and wife of former Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY)—has drawn scrutiny for representing private clients while she consulted with the Department.

Abedin doesn’t show up in the government database, which is run by the General Services Administration (GSA), because she only served as an individual consultant. But other special employees are named—those who have served on federal advisory boards.

Like individual consultants, advisory committee experts may be in a position to capitalize on their insider status. POGO highlighted this problem in a 2004 report that identified representatives of large defense contractors serving on advisory boards at the Pentagon:

[A]dvisory board members are in a position where they may support a specific policy that would benefit their private employer. In addition, an advisory committee member has the benefit of being privy to the government’s future needs and can advise his or her employer or client about likely future policies or programs.

POGO also noted that advisory board experts often include “former government officials who have passed through the revolving door.”

State has refused to identify any of its special employees, even though most agencies contacted by ProPublica were easily able to provide a list of their SGEs.

First, a State spokeswoman told ProPublica her agency “does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

When ProPublica filed a request seeking the list of names under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it was told the agency doesn’t keep such a list, and State’s FOIA office refused to track down the information because it would require “extensive research.”

In September, ProPublica told State it planned to report that the Department was refusing to provide a list of names. In response, State said the FOIA request “was being reopened” and that the records would be provided “in a few weeks,” according to ProPublica.

“The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list,” ProPublica reported last week. “It has been four months since we filed the original request.”

On Friday, a State official told The Washington Post that the Department is “diligently working to resolve” the FOIA request. The official cited concerns about “maintaining employee protections of privacy.”

State’s posture over the past several months is at odds with POGO’s finding: why can’t the Department give the press the same information it already supplied to a public database?

“Disclosure of certain employee information is subject to the Privacy Act of 1974,” Alec Gerlach, a State spokesperson, told POGO. “That some information may already be publicly available does not absolve the Department of Privacy Act requirements. Whether someone is an SGE is Privacy Act-protected information that we would not release except through the FOIA process.”

However, one of the authors of ProPublica’s story questioned why State hasn’t turned over the requested records. “I think anytime a government agency won’t reveal information, it raises questions about why they aren’t,” Liz Day, ProPublica’s Director of Research, told POGO.

The special employees serving on advisory boards are also listed on State Department web pages, but the pages don’t identify them as SGEs. (Other committee members serve as representatives of a particular interest group and, unlike SGEs, are not required to file ethics disclosures because they’re expected to reflect the position of the interest group rather than to provide independent advice. POGO’s Executive Director Danielle Brian serves as a representative of civil society organizations for an advisory board working on extractive industry transparency issues.)

POGO and the Union of Concerned Scientists have recommended that agency advisory committees disclose on their websites the “names of members who are considered Special Government Employees (SGEs) and those designated as Representatives and the reasons for the designation.” We’ve also called for the online posting of ethics records, financial disclosures, and recordings of committee meetings.

Some of the “special” employees on State advisory boards do not receive payment for their service, according to GSA’s records. Others are paid daily or hourly compensation, as well as travel and per diem expenses.