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Watchdog: Bush ex-officials used leverage in private sector

WASHINGTON — Shortly after leaving his job as U.S. energy secretary in early 2005, Spencer Abraham took a $60,000-a-year post as a director of Occidental Petroleum, which soon became the first firm in 20 years to ship oil to the U.S. from Libya.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge accepted director's fees and consulting work from several firms seeking contracts with his old agency.

Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has consulted, lobbied or worked as an employee for 42 companies since leaving office in January 2005.

All told, 17 of 24 former Bush Cabinet members have taken positions with at least 119 companies, including 65 firms that lobby the government and 40 that lobby the agencies they headed, a liberal-leaning watchdog group said in a report Monday.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that the group's six-month investigation "has shown that most of these former Bush administration officials have cannily leveraged their time spent in the public sector'' and "made a mint on the backs of American taxpayers."

"It may be legal, but it is certainly not honorable," she said.

The White House and aides to several of the former Cabinet secretaries offered no immediate comment.

Washington's revolving door isn't a new phenomenon.

Former senior executive branch officials from past administrations and members of Congress from both parties have traded on their connections to assist private businesses in droves.

CREW's report, the most detailed to date about senior Bush administration officials, suggests that rhetoric about government ethics hasn't altered the pattern. It comes as President-elect Barack Obama has promised to take a tough stand on government ethics even as he deals with the challenge of tapping top talent for short-term public service.

The report said that a number of the former officers had spurned direct lobbying themselves, avoiding unseemly appearances and complying with one-year prohibitions on lobbying their former agencies by serving as strategic corporate advisers.

Occidental hadn't registered to lobby the Department of Energy for two and a half years, but resumed after Abraham joined its board, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found. Before oil shipments from Libya were approved, the onetime terrorist nation hired a former Abraham deputy as its energy lobbyist.

Months later, Abraham formed the Abraham Group. He didn't lobby himself, but his group has advised at least four energy companies, helping Houston-based Cheniere Energy Inc. win federal approval to build a liquefied natural gas facility in Texas. Since September 2007, the group has offered consulting services to American companies that operate in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, a leading LNG producer.

Ridge, who oversaw the formation of the Homeland Security Department in 2003, joined the board of Savi Technology soon after exiting the department in February 2005. The firm makes radio frequency-identification equipment that the department had promoted during his tenure. Ridge also joined the energy utility Exelon and telecom company Lucent, both of which continued to seek DHS business.

In late 2007, Ridge formed Ridge Global, hiring top former White House and Homeland Security counter-terrorism officials and peddling their expertise in security and crisis management.

Don Weber, the founder of Logistics Health, a medical readiness supplier, credited Thompson's federal connections with the firm's surge in growth to $104.8 million in U.S. contracts in 2007 from $19.9 million in 2003, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft formed a lobbying and consulting group soon after resigning in November 2004, partnering with former top aide David Ayers and hiring a second former aide, Juleanna Glover Weiss. On Oct. 18, 2005, Ashcroft became the first former Bush Cabinet officer — and apparently the first former attorney general — to register as a lobbyist.

The Ashcroft Group's Web site boasts of involvement in $43 billion of acquisition, antitrust and investment transactions. After hiring the Ashcroft group, Oracle Corp., the world's largest software-database company, won Justice Department antitrust approval for an acquisition. Ashcroft also registered to lobby for AT&T in May 2006, at a time when the phone giant was fighting for Congress to grant telecommunications companies immunity for assisting U.S. counter-terrorism agencies in warrantless wiretaps. Congress voted for the immunity last year.


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