Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Ethics Questions Raised By Relationship of Ridge, Former Aides and Friend-Turned-Lobbyist

Some ethics experts say ties between outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and a friend expanding his homeland security lobbying business raises conflict-of-interest questions.

A Jan. 13 story from The Associated Press found that Ridge twice stayed overnight at the Arizona home of former Ridge fund-raiser David Girard-diCarlo, who currently chairs the Blank Rome lobbyist firm.

Girard-diCarlo subsequently hired two of Ridge's aides to lobby the department, and some of the firm's clients eventually landed lucrative contracts, according to documents uncovered by the AP. Blank Rome has lobbied Ridge's department on behalf of 29 companies, three nonprofit groups and a trade association for the software industry, according to reports the firm filed with Congress.

"This relationship does raise questions about the integrity of the government's process for awarding contracts,'' said Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, told the AP. "It creates the appearance that Mr. Girard-diCarlo and his clients might receive preferential treatment.''

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The story comes on the eve of President Bush's inauguration, following several days of parties in which lobbyists are legally allowed to wine and dine the administration and members of Congress, trying to influence Bush's second-term agenda.

Some critics have questioned whether $40 million of corporate donations -- an obvious grab for influence -- sets the right tone for the second-term. On his first day in office, Bush issued ethics standards requiring his appointees to "endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating applicable law or the ethical standards in applicable regulations.''

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Ridge was hired by the White House after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but was not named named the department's first secretary until its creation on Nov. 25, 2002. According to the AP, Ridge few to Girard-DiCarlo's home the next day for a two- or three-day visit. A month later, Girard-DiCarlo hired Ridge aide Mark Holman.

According to the AP, a federal conflict-of-interest law barred Holman from lobbying the White House for a year after his departure. The restriction, however, didn't extend to Ridge's new agency.

New York University law professor Stephen Gillers called it "intolerable'' that Ridge's White House aides were free to lobby the Homeland Security Department. It "mocks the ethics rules. If it's allowed, it reveals a gaping hole in the law,'' he said.

When they got to Blank Rome, Holman and the other former Ridge White House aide, Ashley Davis, started signing up new homeland security clients and lobbying Ridge's department.
Ridge made a second trip to Girard-diCarlo's Arizona home in mid-April 2003, to celebrate Girard-DiCarlo's wedding anniversary.

In addition to the two Arizona trips, Ridge has been to Girard-diCarlo's Washington condominium on social occasions, and the two have run into each other at social events around town, Ridge's office says.

At the time of Ridge's trips to Arizona, Girard-diCarlo's firm represented Raytheon, which is on a team of companies recently awarded border protection work by Ridge's department worth up to $10 billion over the next decade.

Girard-diCarlo's firm arranged two meetings in 2002 between Ridge's staff and Raytheon executives who outlined the firm's capabilities in border security and other areas, according to Raytheon. Ridge was present for part of the first of the two meetings and Holman in his role as a White House aide to Ridge participated in the second meeting, the company said. Holman later lobbied Ridge's department on behalf of Raytheon, according to Blank Rome's congressional reports.

Since early 2003, Blank Rome has lobbied Ridge's department on behalf of the technology services company BearingPoint. The department awarded a $229 million contract to the company in September.

The contracts for Raytheon and BearingPoint were competitively bid.

Boeing, another Blank Rome client, says it received help from Girard-diCarlo's firm in setting up a meeting early this year with the No. 2 official at Ridge's department, Adm. James Loy.

Boeing is performing over $1 billion worth of work for Ridge's department under a competitively bid contract awarded by the Transportation Department the year before Homeland Security was created.

Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, told the AP that the Bush administration is sending a message by standing by Ridge's trips.

"When Ridge makes clear that he is not worried about appearances, we should not be surprised when the public concludes that government cannot be trusted,'' he said.

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