President Obama's pick to help oversee U.S. export controls for the Commerce Department is a lawyer and political supporter who has been providing export advice to Fortune 500 companies such as arms manufacturer Raytheon and aerospace giant Boeing.
But while White House officials and members of Congress have lauded Kevin J. Wolf's experience for the Commerce job, his recent legal work effectively appears to bar him from potential matters involving dozens of companies.
Mr. Obama's ethics rules, described by the White House as "the toughest of any administration in history," prohibit political appointees such as Mr. Wolf from "particular matters" involving former employers or clients.
"Depending on his former clients, Mr. Wolf might have to recuse himself from many job duties and responsibilities in which they are involved," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight.
"If that's the case, I would be concerned that any real or apparent conflicts of interest would hinder his ability to serve taxpayers effectively."
A private practice lawyer who raised at least $50,000 for Mr. Obama's election, Mr. Wolf's nomination last month as assistant secretary of commerce for export administration is pending.
The Washington Times obtained Mr. Wolf's client list through a recently filed financial-disclosure statement, which reveals the sources of his income and clients for 2008 and 2009. Mr. Wolf declined to comment, but a White House spokesman said Mr. Wolf can still serve effectively even if he has to recuse himself from issues pertaining to former clients.
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Mr. Wolf will be required to recuse himself for two years from particular matters in which his former clients are parties or represent parties.
"The administration's ethics rules … require a clear separation between his private-sector work on behalf of clients and his current position that will include enforcement responsibilities," Mr. LaBolt said.
"Career ethics officials reviewed his client list in consultation with agency program officials and determined this recusal would not impair his ability to carry out his duties as assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, given that there are thousands of U.S. companies he did not work with in the private sector," Mr. LaBolt said.
Mr. Wolf disclosed to ethics officials that he's provided export and other legal advice to 36 U.S.- and foreign-based companies, including Boeing, AIG, Sprint Nextel, jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney and oil and gas giant Schlumberger Ltd., which is based in Houston and has customers in 80 countries.
Other clients of Mr. Wolf's include the U.S.-based subsidiary of QinetiQ, a defense contractor based in the United Kingdom; aerospace companies Hamilton Sundstrand and Esterline Technologies; and PayPal, the California-based company that processes payments and money transfers online in two dozen currencies across the world.
The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee raised no questions about Mr. Wolf's ties to the companies during his recent public confirmation hearing, though senators did note his private law practice.
"Because of his background, he knows better than most former prosecutors what works and what doesn't with companies to enhance compliance," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, who called herself a good friend of Mr. Wolf and his family.
In written testimony, Mr. Wolf told the committee he's worked almost exclusively on export control and other issues for nearly 16 years.
"My clients have been primarily small, medium and large U.S. companies and their foreign affiliates," he said. "Most of my work has involved explaining to them how to comply with both the 'law and the lore' of the often complex export-control and sanctions regulations.
"If U.S. government permission was required to engage in a proposed transaction, I would help them apply for and receive the necessary authorizations," he said.
The job of assistant secretary of commerce for export administration is within the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security. The bureau controls exports of technology, software and so-called dual-use items, or products that can be used for commercial purposes but that can also be used for military purposes. The bureau also processed more than 20,000 export licenses in 2008, according to Commerce records.
On his disclosure form, Mr. Wolf reported that his duties for Boeing and other clients were to "provide export-control advice." He also advised on issues pertaining to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Watchdog groups such as POGO generally have praised Mr. Obama's ethics rules, with the group crediting the administration in a letter to the White House this week for progress toward a more "effective, accountable and ethical federal government."
However, POGO also noted that the "revolving door between the government and private industry creates governmentwide problems that are particularly devastating to regulatory agencies' mission."
Several of Mr. Obama's appointees have been given waivers from the ethics rules based on their ties to companies in the private sector before entering government.
On its Web site, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics lists 15 appointees who have been granted waivers from ethics officials, including Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics; Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; and Herbert Allison, assistant secretary for financial stability at the Treasury Department.
In addition, the White House Web site separately lists the names of seven others who received waivers from the White House, including Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Mr. Obama, and William Lynn, deputy secretary of defense.