When White House Has Queries About Ethics Rules, Adviser Norm Eisen Answers the Call

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

Norm Eisen had just returned from his fourth urgent trip to the White House in the past three hours when his BlackBerry beckoned again. He groaned and opened his e-mail inbox. There, flashing at the top of the list, he found exactly what he had expected: another note from one of President Obama's senior advisers, typed in red font and littered with exclamation marks. "Need your help! Can you come . . . fast?"

"This is what my job is like," Eisen said, grabbing his jacket. "It's one emergency after the next."

Eisen is the White House ethics adviser, the guardian of Obama's integrity, and he is called for consultation every time the new administration has a question regarding more than 1,000 pages of government ethics rules and regulations.

Want to hire a former lobbyist? Better call Norm.

Want to brief a Cabinet member on Obama's ethics policies? Call Norm.

Want to accept a birthday present from a former client? Call Norm.

In an administration filled with nervous new employees who are still learning the rules, Eisen is yanked away from his desk in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for 15 or 20 emergencies each day. He usually arrives to deliver bad news to some of the most important people in the White House. While his official title is special counsel for ethics and government reform, Eisen is also known among colleagues by his nicknames: "Mr. No" and "The Fun Sponge."

In one of his first assignments on the job, Eisen, who was a classmate of Obama's at Harvard Law School, helped craft an executive order that imposed the most far-reaching government ethics reform in decades, experts and historians said. But, for Eisen, the hard part is just beginning: He must ensure that the administration lives up to its own standards and adheres to its own rules. Since late January, when a few senior officials were hired despite having tax problems or lobbyist connections, Eisen has become more central to the vetting process for administration positions. He recommends who should and shouldn't be hired, reminding the Obama White House that its reputation is at stake.

"Sometimes my job is to scare the bejesus out of everybody," Eisen said. "That's part of my function. That's what I do."

Obama has granted Eisen more latitude than any government ethics officer in decades, experts said -- a testament to their relationship and the administration's focus on government reform. Eisen considers every White House employee his client, and seemingly everything falls within his purview. He tracks down interns to make sure they have signed their ethics pledge; he helps craft rules on economic regulatory reform, shapes policy and screens potential employees.

Eisen usually roams the White House halls toting a briefcase overflowing with paperwork and a few books under his arm. He's tall and lanky, with thick-rimmed glasses and curly black hair. He looks as though he has been typecast, colleagues said, for his role as a walking encyclopedia of ethical fine print.

"He's the original propeller-head ethics geek, like something right out of 'The West Wing' TV show," said Gregory Craig, White House chief counsel. "Everybody loves Norm. I don't go anywhere without him. I don't leave home without Norm on these issues."

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