- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

President Obama often boasted on the campaign trail that “lobbyists won’t find a job in my White House,” but he never mentioned anything about embassies. One need look no further than Mr. Obama’s choice for ambassador to Romania to see why.

The nominee, Mark Gitenstein, was a registered federal lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AT&T; and Merrill Lynch until last year. Though now drawing a government salary, the former aide to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., when he was in the Senate will receive $36,000 each year for the rest of his life from his old lobbying firm, according to a recent ethics filing.

“If I were in Romania, I would be quite offended,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, one of seven watchdog groups that criticized Mr. Gitenstein in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was rumored in the running for a Justice Department job earlier this year.

“This is sort of a favor because they couldn’t get his appointment to Justice, so the White House is giving him a runner-up prize,” Mr. Holman said of the nomination, which the Senate approved this month.

In e-mail, Mr. Gitenstein referred questions to the State Department, which in turn referred an inquiry to the White House.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Mr. Gitenstein’s financial arrangement presents no conflict of interest.

“These payments from Mayer Brown’s defined-benefit plan represent Ambassador Gitenstein’s retirement benefits,” Mr. Vietor said. “We are fully confident that Ambassador Gitenstein will carry out his official responsibilities consistent with the high standards established by President Obama.”

Mr. Gitenstein reported making $823,756 in partnership income and $80,000 in salary from Mayer Brown in a recent government financial disclosure, which covers income all of last year through the middle of June.

In addition, he reported earning $30,000 from the Obama-Biden presidential transition team and $4,000 in consulting fees from Citizens for Biden, Mr. Biden’s campaign fund. In addition, he said he would receive approximately $36,000 per year under a Mayer Brown retirement plan for the rest of his life.

The White House didn’t mention Mr. Gitenstein’s lobbying history when it announced his appointment last month, saying only he was a partner at Mayer Brown.

Mr. Gitenstein isn’t the only former lobbyist to find a job in the new administration. William J. Lynn, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, was appointed deputy defense secretary and Cecilia Munoz, director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House, previously lobbied on behalf of the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group. Both were granted waivers from new White House ethics rules.

No such waiver is required in the case of Mr. Gitenstein because he hasn’t lobbied the State Department in the past two years.

“It’s certainly not a direct violation of the restrictions but it does run afoul of the spirit that the White House has embraced,” Mr. Holman said.

Mr. Gitenstein’s lobbying ties never arose as an issue of concern at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat who has sharply criticized Washington lobbyists in his re-election campaign, called Mr. Gitenstein a “great, great” friend who has been his next-door neighbor in Washington for the past decade.

Mr. Gitenstein’s nomination is one of more than a dozen political appointments by Mr. Obama to fill diplomatic posts, a practice criticized by career foreign service employees and watchdog groups.

The practice has been common for both political parties, but good government groups say the appointments seem at odds with Mr. Obama’s populist rhetoric against “special interests” during his campaign.

Altogether, Mr. Obama’s ambassadorial nominees and their families raised at least $4 million for his presidential run and another $1.6 million for his inauguration, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Since the Kennedy administration, presidents have given political appointees about 30 percent of the roughly 170 ambassadorships, records show.

Meanwhile, the American Foreign Service Association and American Academy of Diplomacy have called on Mr. Obama to reduce the number of political appointments to no more than 10 percent. Neither organization has commented on any specific nominee.

“If we are to strengthen the institution of American diplomacy, then people named to fill ambassadorial posts should possess the highest qualifications and have demonstrated interest in foreign affairs,”said Yvonne Siu, spokeswoman for the academy, which represents retired ambassadors and senior-level diplomats.

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