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Lobbying Prohibitions Eased For Former Top Officials

By Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page A05

The timing was perfect: On Nov. 23 -- exactly three weeks after the election and as a flurry of top Bush administration officials announced their departures -- the Office of Government Ethics declared that it was relaxing prohibitions on lobbying by former Cabinet secretaries and other top officials.

Until now, senior officials at Cabinet departments and agencies had not been allowed to lobby former colleagues for a full year after leaving office -- a rule designed to prevent an obvious conflict of interest. But, in a notice in the Federal Register, the ethics office issued a new rule invoking its power to declare that "a former senior employee who served in a 'parent' department or agency is not barred . . . from making communications to or appearances before any employee of any designated component of that parent."

Presidential candidate Ralph Nader is selling autographed copies of one of his books to pay off $450,000 in debts and campaign costs. (Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)

Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security "requested that the [Ethics] Director designate seven distinct and separate components in DHS," including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Emergency Preparedness and Response functions. The Justice and Treasury departments made similar requests.

These changes were so urgent that the ethics office found that "good cause exists for waiving the general requirements for notice of proposed rulemaking, opportunity for public comment and . . . a 30-day delayed effective date."

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics watchdog group, was not amused.

"It's a problem," he said, noting that the administration also expanded the "banding," or ranges, of asset values that must be reported, making it more difficult for the public to know how wealthy government officials are. "We're seeing a general loosening of ethics rules," he said.

Courting Hispanics

President Bush is trying to capitalize on election gains among Hispanic voters by tapping two key minorities for top Cabinet posts, according to two Republicans close to the White House. But it is unclear how big Bush's gain was.

After November's election, Bush moved quickly to name Alberto R. Gonzales, a Mexican American, as attorney general and Carlos M. Gutierrez, a Cuban American, as commerce secretary, citing their vast experience and expertise. A top GOP official close to the White House said both picks were designed to pack a political punch, too.

"Clearly, this is a play to institutionalize the gains in the Hispanic community," said this Republican, who requested anonymity. Republicans hope the appointments, coupled with a new push to change immigration laws to benefit some Hispanics, will help Republicans attract greater support in 2008.

Pollsters are still debating how well Bush did among Hispanics in November. At first, it was believed Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, a dramatic improvement from the 35 percent he captured in 2000, according to exit polls. Now Ana Maria Arumi, elections manager for NBC, says a closer review of exit polling data suggests that the president probably won about 40 percent -- a smaller, but still significant, improvement.

At a forum last week, Arumi said the initial data relied too heavily on results in Republican-leaning precincts in South Florida. Some Democrats argue the number is even smaller. Regardless, the fight for the Hispanic vote is likely to consume the two parties over the next four years.

Nader Winds Up, Pitches

Just in time for the holidays, Ralph Nader is offering supporters this plum of a stocking stuffer -- an autographed copy of the 1972 paperback edition of his book "Unsafe at Any Speed." Cost: a mere $100 (or $500 if you're feeling unusually generous this season).

"This will make a lasting gift for your friends and family during the holidays," Nader writes in a new fundraising appeal to supporters.

Like a washed-up rock star reaching back to the glory days with a greatest-hits album, Nader is hoping the book that brought him some fortune and fame nearly 40 years ago will help bail him out today. Nader is shopping his book as a way to pay off $450,000 in debt and campaign expenses from the presidential race. "We are looking for 5,000 donors to help us wrap up this campaign on a happy fiscal note," Nader writes.

In essence, the consumer advocate-turned-scorn of the Democratic Party is asking for a buck for every vote he snagged in the 2004 race. Nader won about 429,000 votes in November.

Words Fail Us

"We think of the patient hope of men and women across the centuries who listened to the words of the profits and lived in joyful expectation."

-- A White House transcript of President Bush's speech at the Christmas tree lighting on Thursday. Nineteen minutes later, a corrected transcript changed "profits" to "prophets."

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