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."
Eisen almost never leaves his office without a binder of ethics statutes and a badly mangled copy of "5 CFR," the code of federal regulations. It's a dense collection of complicated rules. One chapter on gift bans is followed by a long addendum of exceptions, which are then followed by their own exceptions. Gifts from lobbyists are not allowed, unless they're worth less than $20, and only then if they result from a spouse's business or employment.
After he accepted the ethics job, Eisen "got comfortable" with his copy of the 5 CFR -- meaning he tore off the cover, ripped out pages that did not apply to the White House and annotated sections he liked. He crossed out rules in pencil that he planned to change. No longer, he decided, could White House employees receive small gifts, honorary degrees or awards from lobbyists.
"No way," he said. "Some of these things are just scams."
Most of the rules are easy for Eisen to understand -- "You live them every day, and they start to seep into your DNA," he said -- but nearly everyone else in the White House finds the details overwhelming. Obama's executive order added eight pages of legislation to an already complex library of ethics policy that is enforced across the government by more than 6,000 ethics officials.
Shortly after Election Day, Eisen gave a series of PowerPoint lectures to explain the new rules: a 90-minute conversation with the president; a meeting with the first lady; a visit to every Cabinet secretary; regular group sessions for about 200 people, including everyone from interns to senior aides. Each new hire must receive ethics training within the first 90 days of employment and then at least once each year after that.
"You're not going to understand all the rules. It's too complicated," Eisen said. "So you use your common sense. How's this going to look on the front page of The Washington Post? There are a lot of people who don't set out to say, 'I'm going to break the rules.' They kind of take a baby step. Then they get in a little deeper, they realize they might have messed up, and they don't tell anybody. Suddenly, you're in serious trouble.
"I'm not saying that one dinner a lobbyist buys for you at the Ritz-Carlton is going to result in an outright bribe. But does it make you a little more inclined to take his call? To hold a meeting? Do years of those dinners and golf retreats weaken you a little bit?"
Eisen's presentations are an equal mixture of caution and comedy. White House staff members consider him a frustrated stand-up comic, and he once spent five minutes during a group presentation discussing the difference between being treated to a bag of large prawns vs. a bag of small shrimp. But Eisen ends every presentation with the same stone-faced plea for employees to call him with any questions -- even if they may not always like his answer.
"Norm is not afraid to tell people what they can't do, and it doesn't matter if it's a Cabinet secretary who wants a waiver to hire somebody or a junior staffer who got a Starbucks card for taking someone on a tour," said Chris Lu, an assistant to the president and also a member of Obama's and Eisen's 1991 Harvard law class. "Norm applies the rules fairly, and he is willing to be the bearer of bad news. That's not a job a lot of us would want, but it's absolutely essential and he's great at it."
To become the Obama enforcer, Eisen traded life as a partner at the Washington law firm Zuckerman Spaeder and took a huge pay cut to work 16-hour days that leave him with head colds and little time for his wife and young daughter. Some days, his decision to join the government seems "crazy," Eisen said. But he's a first-generation American, the son of a Holocaust survivor and a poultry butcher who had an arranged marriage and immigrated to South Central Los Angeles to run a hamburger stand. "I'm up from the bootstraps," Eisen said, "and I feel a very strong sense of obligation and loyalty to the country that might be old-fashioned."
A moderate Democrat, Eisen called Obama early in the campaign and offered his support. He raised money, helped shape education policy and ran an election protection team before shifting his focus primarily to ethics and government reform late in the general election campaign. Eisen had founded Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in 2003 and built a successful litigation career on dealing with ethics problems after they materialized. The chance to deal with ethics issues before the fact -- not after -- appealed to him, he said.
A few weeks before election night, Eisen met with senior advisers to begin compiling some of Obama's campaign ethics promises into an executive order. Only then did the magnitude of his role in the new administration crystallize. Obama wanted to diminish lobbyists' influence in Washington with two radical mandates: Nobody who had lobbied in the past two years would be allowed to work for Obama on those issues, and anyone who left would be permanently banned from lobbying Obama's administration.
"They sent a very clear signal that ethics was a priority, and they were willing to make some hard choices," said Rick Cusick, who was appointed director of the Office of Government Ethics by President George W. Bush. "It requires some self-sacrifice, because their rules have really limited whom they can hire."
It often falls to Eisen and his nine-person ethics team to apply those rules, explaining to senior advisers and Cabinet secretaries why they cannot hire certain people. He also must explain to rejected applicants why they are barred from working in the administration. "Everybody has a reason why a particular lobbyist is meritorious, and a lot of them actually are meritorious," Eisen said. "Those are very hard conversations. But we have to stick by the rules."
When the administration flirted with leniency during a week in January, granting a waiver to former Raytheon lobbyist and deputy defense secretary nominee Bill Lynn and explaining away tax problems for nominees Thomas A. Daschle and Timothy F. Geithner, senators and government watch groups said Obama had fallen short of his own standards. Daschle eventually withdrew from consideration; Lynn and Geithner were confirmed by the Senate after public apologies. It was, Eisen said, "an awareness moment."
The administration still grants occasional waivers to former lobbyists when their qualifications are unparalleled, Eisen said -- including ones he signed for Cecilia Munoz, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, and for the first lady's policy director, Jocelyn Frye. But since that rough week in January, Eisen said, "we avoid a waiver whenever we can."
Said Cassandra Q. Butts, a senior adviser to Obama: "It wasn't enough for us to operate within the rules. We had to ensure that we were living up to the spirit of the rules. The public has embraced that message, and we've taken it to heart in governing. We've redoubled our efforts."
Which means Eisen says "no" even more often.
Join Eli Saslow today between 10 and 10:15 a.m. to discuss this article. He will be chatting about the Obama administration's ethics chief in the article's comments thread at washingtonpost.com.