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.
"It has become a nightmare," E. Pendleton James, who managed personnel for President Ronald Reagan's transition, said of the questionnaire. "I don't know how anybody with some self-esteem can subject themselves to all of these questionnaires. . . . Every candidate who fills out the form is deathly afraid of making a mistake. If he or she does make an innocent mistake, that can be used as a political weapon in the confirmation process to question your integrity."
Inquiries into candidates' backgrounds grow deeper as each administration's scandals add new thresholds. In the 1980s, a history of marijuana use killed some nominations. During the past decade, scandals about domestic workers clouded transitions. Clinton's nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, withdrew from consideration when it became public that she and her husband had hired a Peruvian couple living in the country illegally as a babysitter and chauffeur. Eight years later, Bush's nominee for secretary of labor, Linda Chavez, withdrew after she was found to have provided haven to an illegal immigrant from Guatemala.
Obama's questionnaire has four questions about domestic workers.
"If you looked at the questionnaires that they used back in 1976 and 1980, they would be very tiny compared to this questionnaire," said Michael S. Berman, a lawyer and lobbyist who worked on the Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton transitions. "Over time, in each transition, whether Democratic or Republican, some new issue will arise, some question that hasn't been asked before that causes consternation, so you simply add that in."
Personal information obtained through the vetting process does not automatically disqualify a candidate from a political appointment, but the transition team uses the information to judge a person's fitness for the office and likelihood of being confirmed.
The questionnaire does not directly ask about drug use -- which Obama himself admitted to in his 1995 memoir -- but it includes a question seeking any information that would be "a possible source of embarrassment."
Some officials who vetted nominees for previous administrations said Obama's standards are so onerous he risks turning away the best candidates.
"It takes major talent to do this work," said a senior Pentagon official who has worked on transitions for four Republican presidents. "With two wars going on and several major acquisition programs, they need the best people they can find in the Untied States today, and you've got to be careful not to be so stringent that you eliminate those people. If you get too difficult, people will say, 'No, thank you.' "
For vetters, there is a mantra: "Vetters never think that no one else will find something out," the Obama adviser said. "We know that if we found it, someone else will find it."
Tom C. Korologos, a D.C. lobbyist and former ambassador to Belgium, has vetted and prepared more than 300 nominees for confirmation hearings, beginning during President Richard M. Nixon's transition. He begins each session by asking the candidate a simple question:
"What is there in your background that you have done that's going to come up in the hearing and embarrass the president and embarrass you? I'm not telling you to tell me what it is. What I'm telling you is to get the answer in your head, because it's going to come up."
When Korologos vetted Nelson Rockefeller before his selection as President Gerald R. Ford's vice president, Rockefeller was reluctant to make his financial history public.
" 'I've got something to worry about,' " Korologos recalled Rockefeller telling him.
"His concern was that when it became public, he wasn't going to be as rich as everybody thought he was," Korologos said. "He was going to be embarrassed among his peers that he didn't have all the billions people thought."
To prepare Donald H. Rumsfeld for his confirmation hearing to become defense secretary, Korologos held a "murder board."
"I'd ask the rottenest questions in the world," Korologos said. "My goal was to have him at the end say, 'You [expletive], you were much harder on me than the committee was.' "