Like any cabinet-level agency, the U.S. Department of Labor under the Obama administration has its share of political cronies. And the department has given more than a few indications that it intends to remake DOL into a vehicle for union advocacy. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) for the past year has sought the full story. It’s one of the less publicized aspects of the apparent lack of accountability in the current administration. This past December, attorneys for the Springfield, Va.-based foundation filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court demanding the Labor Department release information in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request NRTW had filed last April seeking facts about lobbying and other activities by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (see photo) and other ranking officials. Raising further the distinct possibility that the DOL has not complied with the law is a recent article in the Washington Times summarizing how the Obama administration has gutted as many union transparency rules as possible.
The Right to Work organization last April filed a FOIA in District of Columbia federal court requesting information about potential conflicts of interest. Specifically, Right to Work attorneys wanted to know about: 1) Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis’ ties to a union-supported nonprofit group, American Rights at Work; 2) conflicts of interest among DOL officials under President Obama’s new ethics rules; 3) the role of Deborah Greenfield, a top-ranking DOL official and former AFL-CIO lawyer, in rolling back rules governing union financial transparency. The administration did not respond after repeated requests. Exasperated, the NRTW lawyers went to court. The lawsuit requests that the administration hand over relevant documents and that it investigate the possibility DOL officials consciously have ignored FOIA protocols.
Union leaders have been bitterly fighting toughened financial reporting rules since Bush-era Labor Secretary Elaine Chao first unveiled them in 2003. The changing of the political guard has given successor Hilda Solis and top aides ample opportunity to block or reverse these regulations. They’ve acted quickly, too. During the first few months of 2009, the department rescinded enhanced rules on Form LM-2 (which applies to larger unions) finalized during the last days of the Bush administration. It also rolled back a more stringent Form LM-30 put into place in 2007; the LM-30 form is designed to prevent conflicts of interest among union officials and certain persons (e.g., contractors) doing business with them. And last fall the DOL rescinded rules requiring the disclosure of information for organized labor fundraising front groups, giving the public a mere 11-day comment period.
Why has the Labor Department under Hilda Solis acted as an informal partner of organized labor? Maybe it’s because she and other top DOL officials were part of organized labor prior to assuming their current jobs. Solis, despite having served continuously as a California congresswoman since 2001, also served as treasurer of a union-sponsored 501(c)(4) nonprofit lobbying group called American Rights at Work (ARAW) in an unsalaried capacity during 2004-07. This avowedly “nonpartisan” organization, among other things, has been pressuring Congress to pass a law to force private-sector employers to recognize a union as a sole collective bargaining agent if it conducts a successful simple-majority “card check” campaign at a nonunion worksite. Under IRS rules, a 501(c)(4) organization’s primary political activity is influencing legislation. In other words, Solis, while as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was aiding union lobbying while voting on labor-related issues. Even after becoming secretary of labor, the ARAW website continued to list her as a member of its board of directors.
Congressional ethics rules explicitly bar Members from lobbying colleagues. They also require all members to indicate any potential conflicts of interest on disclosure forms. While Solis’ duties at ARAW didn’t necessarily involve lobbying, it is a fact that she failed to fill out relevant forms indicating her activities. In other words, nobody knows exactly what she did. And she’s got no reason to talk.
Favoritism and an accompanying lack of transparency also have marked two of Solis top appointments. Her senior adviser at the Labor Department, Mary Beth Maxwell, had been executive director of American Rights at Work. And the department’s deputy solicitor-secretariat, Deborah Greenfield, previously had served as associate general counsel with the AFL-CIO. It was Greenfield who filed the AFL-CIO suit challenging Labor Secretary Chao’s authority to impose an expanded LM-2 reporting form. The unions lost that battle in U.S. Appeals Court in May 2005, though it did succeed in delaying introduction of a new form, T-1, designed to apply to union-sponsored trusts. Greenfield already had played a key role on the Obama transition team, recommending a rollback of union financial disclosure enforcement.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama repeatedly told audiences that lobbyists and other “special interests” would have no place in his administration. Indeed, on his first day in office, the new president vowed that his appointees “will not for a period of two years…participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to their former employer.” The Department of Labor must not have gotten that memo. The current administration thus far has stonewalled inquiries into DOL ethics violations. The Right to Work Foundation lawsuit is a reminder that the federal government has to play by its own rules.