Potential Obama Appointees Face Extensive Vetting

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There was a time when smoking marijuana during college threatened your hopes of landing a top presidential appointment. Then came the nanny questions: Are your domestic workers legal? Did you pay their employment taxes?

Now, as President-elect Barack Obama assembles his administration, an army of lawyers volunteering on his transition team are vetting his potential picks with unprecedented scrutiny of their personal, financial and professional backgrounds.

Embarrassing e-mails, text messages, diary entries and Facebook profiles? Gifts worth more than $50, other than those from relatives and long-standing friends? Family members with connections to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG or any other company receiving a federal bailout?

Obama is conducting the vetting process much the way he managed his campaign: methodically, thoroughly and on a prodigious scale. He did not wait until he won the election to vet his favored picks. Soon after he clinched the Democratic nomination, lawyers quietly prepared dossiers of about 150 contenders for senior positions -- often without the candidates themselves knowing -- said a senior Obama transition adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"You start with public sources: You go on Google, Nexis and other public record databases," the adviser said.

Now Obama is asking contenders to complete a far-reaching questionnaire and furnish detailed personal and financial records dating back a decade.

"Now you're going to the next level and really trying to understand if there are any potential issues in nominating and confirming this person for the job," the adviser said. "The real purpose of vetting is to understand the person's ability to perform the job and be confirmed for the position. We also want to avoid surprises."

The vetting process extends beyond a 63-item questionnaire Obama is requiring of top candidates. For the roughly 800 executive posts that require Senate confirmation, nominees must undergo an FBI background check and file records with the Office of Government Ethics.

For the president-elect, vetting candidates and selecting nominees is his first test of leadership, said Dina Habib Powell, a former director of presidential personnel in the Bush White House.

"The decisions that [Obama] makes in appointing individuals to serve in these critical roles will have an impact on his entire presidency," Powell said.

Obama's scrutiny is so intense that some top candidates hired personal attorneys in the spring and summer to "pre-vet" them in advance of submitting information to Obama's team. The lawyers scoured tax returns for any errors or details that could jeopardize their chances, said a Washington lawyer who is involved in Obama's vetting process and played a similar role for President Bill Clinton's transition.

"Sometimes they will have us go through their tax return and say, 'I did X, Y and Z, my accountant recommended it, but do you think that was kosher? Do you think that would raise red flags?' " said the lawyer, who has pre-vetted some clients and agreed to describe the process only if he and his clients would not be identified.

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