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White House Official-Turned-Lobbyist Cashed in on CARES Act

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

A high-level staffer managing legislative affairs for President Donald Trump who left government earlier this year is listed in official filings as lobbying Congress on the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill for an array of mammoth corporate and industry clients, such as the drug industry trade group PhRMA, an association representing private equity firms, Duke Energy, Major League Baseball, and the Children’s Hospital Association. Despite Benjamin R. Howard’s recent turn through the revolving door, he may turn through it yet again: Politico recently reported that the Oval Office is considering bringing him back for an even more senior White House job. And a close look at lobbying disclosures suggests the possibility he may have run afoul of Trump’s ethics restrictions—but neither he, his lobbying firm, nor the White House responded to the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) when presented with the information in detailed queries.

Within weeks of leaving a high-level White House position, a lobbyist was working to influence the coronavirus aid bill on behalf of big business.

With his last day in the White House on January 31, Howard departed for a position at the Duberstein Group, a lobbying powerhouse. While at the Trump White House, according to his bio, he helped shepherd Trump’s tax cuts into law—tax cuts that largely benefited the wealthy and corporations. In addition to his most recent stints in the executive branch and lobbying world, he had also served in the George W. Bush White House, where he worked on the legislation bailing out Wall Street during the financial crisis more than a decade ago, and then as a staffer in the House of Representatives.

Since decamping to the Duberstein Group, Howard’s talents and connections have been in the employ of well-financed clients who sought to influence the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act. According to legally mandated disclosures, the Duberstein Group lists him as a lobbyist who worked on aspects of that aid package for eight clients.

Lobbying disclosures for United Airlines and Aramark Services, a company that provides food services, list Howard as part of a team of lobbyists targeting the White House, other executive branch agencies, and Congress. In the Aramark disclosure, he is listed as just one of two Duberstein lobbyists that advocated for the food services firm before the White House.

Trump’s ethics rules for his political appointees bar them from lobbying their former government agency for five years after departing government service and from lobbying executive branch officials for the remainder of the administration. Howard’s name is not in an April 2020 White House list of current and former staffers who have received waivers from aspects of the ethics restrictions.

As mentioned, the White House, the Duberstein Group, and Howard did not respond to POGO’s emailed queries, which included questions regarding Howard’s compliance with Trump’s ethics rules. United and Aramark also did not respond.

Howard isn’t the only Trump-connected lobbyist working to influence the government’s decisions regarding the coronavirus response. A recent Public Citizen report details 20 other lobbyists who’ve worked in the administration or provided services to the administration who are now lobbying on aspects of the pandemic response efforts. Howard is not mentioned in the Public Citizen report. Public Citizen found five other former officials who, like Howard, may have violated Trump’s ethics pledge. But “lobbying disclosure forms are not sufficiently precise, in most cases, to determine if violations have occurred,” the nonprofit good government group wrote. “Investigation is warranted.”

The coronavirus aid bill has appeared to benefit Howard’s clients to varying degrees, though limited information in lobbying forms makes it difficult to discern the specifics of Howard’s lobbying efforts.

United Airlines received one of the largest bailout packages through the bill of any U.S. airline: $5 billion. As is typical of the Duberstein Group’s lobbying disclosures, all it states is that Howard and his fellow lobbyists worked on “Issues related to COVID-19: H.R.748 - CARES Act” for United. One of the airline’s largest unions, representing some 27,000 of its workers, has sued the company in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging United is violating a key bailout provision by cutting employees’ hours significantly.

“For United to obtain federal funds under the false pretense that it would protect its workers through September and then turn around and do this to their most loyal workforce struggling to survive during this pandemic is unconscionable,” Mike Klemm, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers district lodge 141, said in a statement. The company maintains its cuts in working hours for its staff are in compliance with the law. Last week, United sent layoff notices to 36,000 employees, nearly half its workforce, warning of furloughs in the fall.

In addition to bailouts, the coronavirus aid package also included tax benefits. Duke Energy appears to be one of a handful of companies poised to benefit from one obscure tax benefit buried in the aid bill. The tax benefit allows companies that had paid corporate alternative minimum taxes (AMT)—a system repealed by Trump’s 2017 tax cut—to receive refunds more rapidly than they were otherwise slated to receive.

Todd Castagno, an accounting and tax policy analyst at Morgan Stanley, told Bloomberg Tax, “There are very few companies that have AMT credits outstanding,” but utilities, like Duke Energy, “carry some of the largest balances” because their operations require significant capital outlays and other expenses where the tax code allows deductions. One of six companies Bloomberg Tax identified as lobbying for this provision in the aid bill, Duke Energy can now access $572 million in tax refunds more quickly. The Duberstein Group noted that Howard’s lobbying work for Duke Energy on the aid bill was tax-related, yet its disclosure form lacks further detail. Another lobbyist’s disclosure for Duke Energy provided specifics of the legislative efforts. Duke Energy did not respond to POGO’s request for comment, but told Bloomberg Tax that the refunded tax credits “helps provide certainty as we continue delivering the reliable power customers need while helping to protect the health and well-being of our communities.”

Accenture, a consulting company and large recipient of U.S. taxpayer dollars through its federal contracts, also paid Howard to lobby on tax provisions in the aid bill. Accenture is a large federal contractor identified as having legally resided in multiple alleged tax havens, and which moved its corporate headquarters from Bermuda to Ireland in 2009 to maintain a lower tax rate. While it has a history of successfully lobbying the U.S. Congress to change tax laws in its favor, it’s unclear exactly what Accenture lobbied for relating to taxes in the aid bill. Accenture did not respond to a request for comment.

Some of Howard’s clients have been industry associations.

The trade group for the drug industry, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, often referred to by its acronym, PhRMA, paid a Duberstein Group team of lobbyists that included Howard to work on a cluster of issues related to health care such as provisions in the aid bill and drug pricing. The group declined to comment.

Another industry association that hired Howard to lobby Congress on tax provisions in the aid bill, Business Roundtable, is made up of chief executive officers of large corporations. Its 23-member board of directors includes the heads of Accenture and Duke Energy. In a letter to Congress in May about upcoming coronavirus response legislation, the Business Roundtable sought beneficial tax changes for business: “Congress should further defer estimated tax payments, provide pension interest rate stabilization and offer additional liquidity through net operating loss rules and accelerated use of business tax credits.” The Business Roundtable did not respond to a request for comment.

Among the more contentious issues surrounding the aid bill was whether companies owned by private equity firms would be eligible for loans. These firms, whose industry association is the American Investment Council, tend to be well-financed operations, collectively sitting on some $1.5 trillion as of the beginning of the year, and are led by some of the nation’s wealthiest executives. Some of the industry’s biggest players have been donors to the Trump campaign and have courted Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Some of the private equity industry’s biggest players have been donors to the Trump campaign and have courted Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Howard lobbies on behalf of the American Investment Council, along with two former high-level Trump administration officials from the Treasury Department—Bradley Bailey and Jared Sawyer—and their efforts may have helped the private equity industry more knowledgeably pull the levers of government. While his exact role is not publicly known, Howard’s specialty, Congress, came through for the industry: Lawmakers urged the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration “to waive a rule that would normally disqualify ‘equity-backed’ companies, such as ones receiving private equity or venture capital funding, from winning small-business stimulus funds,” as the Washington Post reported in April.

The effort paid off. A joint POGO and Anti-Corruption Data Collective investigation analyzing Paycheck Protection Program loan data released last week by the Small Business Administration found more than 1,300 businesses owned by private equity firms received loans from the taxpayer-funded program.

The American Investment Council did not respond to a request for comment.

After Howard left the Trump White House, Christopher Cox, a lobbyist from the firm Navigators Global, replaced him as the administration official leading the White House’s legislative strategy in the House of Representatives. Prior to his job change, Cox represented other companies such as Delta Air Lines; UPS; Emergent BioSolutions; Intuit, the maker of TurboTax; and the GEO Group, a major prison and detention contractor.

But Howard may be returning to the White House to be Cox’s new boss. A Politico story in May stated that Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, was considering bringing Howard back to lead the administration’s overall legislative efforts. That it is even being considered shows how far the reality of the Trump administration has strayed from Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, when he proposed slamming shut the revolving door between government and lobbying firms.