Watchdogs Mourn Loss Of White House Ethics Czar

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White House "ethics czar" Norman Eisen is taking an ambassadorship. He's been the "ethics czar," and now his portfolio is being added to those handled by Bob Bauer, the counsel to the president. Is that an upgrade for ethics and openness in the White House, or the opposite?

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In imperial Russia, losing the title of czar was always a demotion. But in Washington, moving from czar to ambassador can be a step-up. The White House ethics czar is about to become the ambassador to the Czech Republic. He's happy about the move.

But as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, some watchdog groups are not happy with the White House decision to forego hiring a new ethics czar.

ARI SHAPIRO: People who have spent decades pushing for ethics and transparency in government talk about Norm Eisen's tenure as ethics czar as a kind of Camelot moment.

Ms. DANIELLE BRIAN (Executive Director, Project on Government Oversight): It was a dream come true.

Dr. GARY BASS (Founder and Executive Director, OMB Watch): He's performed in almost a superhuman fashion.

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Founder and President, Democracy 21): Norm Eisen has done a phenomenal job handling ethics and campaign finance and transparency.

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): He has really pushed these issues in a way nobody else in the White House Counsel's Office has, certainly, in the past 20 years. And I think no other administration has.

SHAPIRO: That was Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, Gary Bass of OMB Watch, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 and Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - all mourning the departure of the first and possibly the last ethics czar.

Mr. BEN LABOLT (Assistant Press Secretary, White House): There's no cause for concern here.

SHAPIRO: Ben LaBolt is a White House spokesman.

Mr. LABOLT: Bob Bauer, as White House counsel, will assume the lead on ethics and government reform.

SHAPIRO: Which is exactly the way earlier presidents handled it.

Six lawyers who used to work for Eisen will keep working on these issues. And a new lawyer named Stephen Crowley(ph) is joining the White House's Domestic Policy Council to focus on ethics and transparency, among other subjects.

Nonetheless, Eileen Miller(ph) of the Sunlight Foundation fears that this is a step backward.

Ms. ELLEN MILLER (Co-founder, Sunlight Foundation): Because we have had for 18 months a designated individual who has been focused solely on these issues. And now, we have an individual who has hundreds of other hugely important issues in his portfolio, and this is just going to be one of them.

SHAPIRO: The White House counsel is the president's top lawyer, overseeing everything from judicial nominations to closing Guantanamo. Ethics is now added to the pile.

But Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the way the boxes are arranged is not what's important.

Mr. NORM ORNSTEIN (Congressional Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): All of this rests not on whether you have a Norm Eisen or an ethics czar or somebody else in a particular position. What it really rests on is the degree to which the president of the United States decides that this is something that's important to him.

SHAPIRO: And White House spokesman Ben LaBolt says anyone who wants to know whether the president is committed to these issues should look at Barack Obama's history in public office.

Mr. LABOLT: His record should offer assurances that these issues will remain at the top of his agenda.

Ms. BRIAN: I believe that. I believe, because we worked with then-Senator Obama, and I believe that he does personally really care about these issues.

That's Danielle Brian. She runs the Project on Government Oversight.

Ms. BRIAN: But one of the things that I've learned during his term in office, as president, is sometimes that isn't enough. It isn't enough for him to say I really care about these issues. He needs to have the people who are continuing to push those agencies - particularly, for example, in the intelligence community - that really aren't as embracing of openness and transparency.

SHAPIRO: All of this nail-biting amounts to fear of the unknown, says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: I believe we are in a position to have a very satisfactory transition. I think we all know that in the end this will be judged by results, not by the speculation that's taking place now.

SHAPIRO: White House officials say they are happy to be judged on results. They say a stream of new initiatives on transparency, ethics, whistleblower protection and more is on its way - even without an ethics czar to oversee their implementation.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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