Timothy P. Carney: White House, Google violate lobbying pledge

Maybe a $150 billion company with 21,000 employees and 20 percent profit margins doesn't count as big business or a special interest if it talks about “changing the world from the bottom up, not from the top down,” as President Obama put it.

Maybe a millionaire who spends his days leaning on policymakers to benefit his company isn't a lobbyist if he calls himself an “Internet evangelist.”

Or maybe Google's cozy relationship with the White House — exposed more clearly by e-mails recently made public through the Freedom of Information Act — is just one more instance of the administration's actions contradicting Obama's reformer rhetoric about battling the special interests and freeing Washington from lobbyist influence.

Consumer Watchdog, a liberal nonprofit, used FOIA to obtain e-mails between White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin and his former colleagues at Google. McLaughlin was Google's head of global public policy and government affairs, up until he joined the White House.

Despite the job title, McLaughlin wasn't a registered lobbyist. Still, ethics rules created by an Obama executive order prohibit McLaughlin from “participat[ing] in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to” Google. But the e-mails show McLaughlin has been involved with formulating policy that directly affects Google, regularly trading e-mails with Google's “evangelist,” and lobbyist.

The topic of net neutrality — where the Obama administration and Google share a pro-regulation position that would profit Google — appears repeatedly in McLaughlin-Google e-mails.

When one news report suggested the White House was backing away from the pro-Google regulations, Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf wrote a worried note to McLaughlin, asking, “Has there been so much flack from the Hill that you guys feel a need to back away?”

McLaughlin reassured his former colleague, “Don't be silly. No one's backed away from anything.”

Later, when McLaughlin took heat in the media for publicly comparing AT&T — Google's rival in the net neutrality debate — to the communist Chinese government, Google lobbyist Alan Davidson sent McLaughlin a heads up that a reporter had called Google about it. Davidson assured McLaughlin that he would get the Open Internet Coalition — a pro-net-neutrality lobby headed by Google — to “have your back.”

“Thanks,” McLaughlin wrote back. Davidson followed up the next day, taking credit for killing the story.

McLaughlin knew he was barred from dealing with Google, the e-mails show. When Cerf passed him an e-mail about Google Earth and an issue regarding a border dispute in Cambodia, McLaughlin responded, “in my current position, I'm recused from anything having to do with Google.”

When I asked the White House about McLaughlin's e-mails, Rick Weiss, a spokesman at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, responded that McLaughlin's “e-mails to Vint did not run afoul of the pledge since Vint is a federal advisory committee member with whom Andrew is allowed to communicate on matters of relevance to that committee.”

But Cerf was using a Google.com e-mail address and writing about regulations Google was aggressively backing.

And only when I followed up with a question about the e-mails with lobbyist Davidson did Weiss admit “they did violate the President's Ethics Pledge,” and note that McLaughlin had been reprimanded.

But what else is McLaughlin working on that directly affects his former colleagues with whom he is in regular contact? It's hard to imagine many tech issues that don't directly affect Google, and so it's hard to imagine very many issues McLaughlin could work on that don't clash with Obama's ethics rules.

McLaughlin's role is only one strand in the web of Google-Obama connections.

Google trailed only Goldman Sachs and Microsoft as a source of funds for Obama in 2008, providing $803,000 — 40 times what Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain raised from the company. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was a fundraiser and adviser for Obama's campaign.

Obama speaks a lot about battling the special interests. But, evidently, his friends don't count.

Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner's lobbying editor. His K Street column appears on Wednesdays.

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