US Deputy CTO Gets Reprimand for Google Lobbying Contacts

Wed, May 19, 2010 at 9:37 am

    What happens when Google’s former public policy director starts working in the White House—but continues to e-mail current Google lobbyists, and to take their e-mails? If you’re Consumer Watchdog, the answer is simple: he “should resign his position.”

    But to the White House, the headhunting is ridiculous. US Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin has already been “reprimanded” over what it characterized as “incidental” communications with Google’s current crop of lobbyists.

    “Andrew regrets these violations,” we were told.

    The accusations

    The odd tale began in March 2010, when the Big Government website took notice of Andrew McLaughlin’s Google Buzz account. Remember the privacy concerns that attended Buzz on launch? So does McLaughlin, because Big Government used them to take a look at McLaughlin’s contacts.

    Photo of Andrew McLaughlin
    Andrew McLaughlin

    “They revealed that McLaughlin’s most e-mailed Gmail contacts included more than two-dozen Google employees, including many of the company’s most senior lobbyists and lawyers,” reported the site.

    Consumer Watchdog, which has long been skeptical about putting a former top lobbyist from Google into the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get copies of all McLaughlin e-mails with Googlers since he began working at the White House.

    Yesterday, Consumer Watchdog released the archived e-mails it received and demanded McLaughlin resign his post as Deputy CTO. “We opposed the appointment of a lobbyist to this position from the beginning,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. “This episode demonstrates that he should resign.”

    The reprimand

    The resignation looks unlikely, though McLaughlin did find himself in hot water over the incident. That’s because, when the White House was responding to the FOIA request by pulling e-mail from its archives, it learned that McLaughlin had occasionally used his private Gmail account to receive and respond to work-related messages—a big no-no. Government employees must archive all such official messages and cannot use private accounts to conduct official business.

    On May 10, President Obama’s top science and tech advisor, John Holdren, issued a memo to OSTP. It mentioned no one by name, but did note that “one of our employees recently fell short” of his obligations. This person “inadvertently failed to forward to his OSTP e-mail account work-related e-mails received on his personal account. The employee has since taken corrective action by forwarding these additional e-mails from his personal account to his OSTP account so that all of the work-related e-mails are properly preserved in his OSTP account.”

    The employee was “reprimanded” and has since “received additional individual training on his obligations under the [Federal Records Act] and the ethics pledge.”

    In addition to the use of the Gmail account, “there were several e-mails in which the OSTP employee discussed matters within the sphere of his official duties with representatives of his former employer who were acting in their capacity as employees of his former employer.”

    OSTP has confirmed to Ars Technica that McLaughlin was the memo’s subject.

    The e-mails

    Nearly all of the e-mails are innocuous. Most come from Googler Vint “Father of the Internet” Cerf—but these concern keeping Internet access running in Haiti during the US relief efforts and the operation of ICANN, not about Google (Big Government charged in April that McLaughlin was lobbying hard for Clearwire during the Haiti disaster, though the report is unsourced). And Cerf currently serves on a federal advisory board, so the communications would be legitimate conversation between government employees.

    Only one e-mail from Cerf stands out: a February 2010 message in which he asks McLaughlin to read a third-party white paper on public/private ownership of open-access middle-mile Internet connectivity. Cerf recommends the paper, which the paper’s author says would “really drive home the value of what Google is proposing with its Gigabit to the home initiative.”

    More problematic are connections between McLaughlin and current Google DC lobbyist Alan Davidson. In a November 2009 e-mail, Davidson sent McLaughlin an e-mail saying, “Incoming. We got this from a reporter.”

    It was a statement from AT&T, bashing McLaughlin for some pro-open Internet remarks he made. “PS we’ve teed it up for the OIC gang, so some of those folks will have your back,” wrote Davidson. (OIC is the Open Internet Coalition, it seems, of which Google is a member.)

    Google and OIC then tried to kill the story on McLaughlin. “We and a few OIC folks talked to reporters,” wrote Davidson. “It’s possible that killed it, which is probably driving Cicconi crazy. :)” (James Cicconi is AT&T’s top DC lobbyist.)

    McLaughlin thanked them for their help and engaged in some brief back-and-forth, telling Davidson that the White House too would “push back hard, which is helpful.”

    This was one of the interactions that got McLaughlin into trouble. Another came when the Google Buzz story hit and Big Government wrote its March piece on McLaughlin. He turned immediately to his private-sector colleague Davidson, asking him to help out in quashing the story.

    “Grump,” he wrote about the article. “Worse, I don’t even communicate with you people!… It would be helpful to explain that the list of buzz contacts is not the same as ‘most emailed’—there are people there I haven’t emailed more than twice in 6 years.” Davidson apologized for Buzz’s problems.

    Working the alumni network

    Neither account looks particularly damning, and McLaughlin has been reprimanded for the connection. These are the only e-mails that stand out in the entire correspondence between him and Googlers. In fact, McLaughlin was quite careful in his dealings with them; Googlers didn’t show the same level of care.

    In September 2009, Manuel Tamez, New Business Development manager for Google, invited McLaughlin to a reception at Google’s DC offices. “Thanks for the kind invite, Manuel. In my new position, I keep a very strict line between myself and Google (and Googlers), so I won’t be able to attend the reception,” said McLaughlin.

    In November, another Googler who worked directly with the federal government asked McLaughlin for help.

    “After co-founding Google Crisis Response, I have moved into a position on the Federal team managing activities and relationships associated with Google’s geospatial technologies. Tone of interest across the spectrum of orgs/agencies as you know—a pivotal one being Virtual USA. We understand the ROPP demo yesterday went well. Based on your observation of the event, can you share any objective insights (I understand the sensitivities) with respect to capabilities, concepts, execution, etc?”

    This message, which seems clearly inappropriate, never received a response.

    Davidson wrote to McLaughlin in December 2009 about Vice President Biden’s ridiculously one-sided copyright roundtable. “So, should we be worried about this? Any suggestions on who to call to grump about how insanely one-sided this conversation is?” He got no response.

    In February 2010, Michael Terrell of Google Public Policy—McLaughlin’s old stomping grounds—went to McLaughlin for connections. Terrell wanted to “connect about our home energy management work… Is there someone in your office who I should talk to?” No response.

    Later in the month, on a different issue, McLaughlin again made clear to an e-mailer that, “In my current position, I’m recused from anything having to do with Google.”

    Slap on the wrist?

    In a statement to Ars, an OSTP spokesman said that “Andrew had a limited number of communications with his former employer on topics within the scope of his official duties. These communications were incidental and had no influence on policy decisions within the Federal government. But they did violate the President’s Ethics Pledge, which prohibits Andrew from having any contact with his former employer regarding matters within the scope of his duties at OSTP—except under certain limited circumstances not present in this case. OSTP reprimanded Andrew for these lapses and counseled him on his ethics obligations. Andrew regrets these violations and has taken steps to ensure they do not occur again, including an in-depth review of the Pledge and Federal ethics laws.”

    “McLaughlin received a mild slap on the wrist,” said Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson. “With his background as Google’s lobbyist he is simply the wrong man for this job.”

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