Commerce Chief Issues Rules to Separate Politics, Trade Missions
By Paul Blustein
Commerce Secretary William Daley, seeking to end allegations of department favoritism toward Democratic donors, unveiled a plan yesterday to revamp the method of selecting business executives for government trade missions.
Under the new rules, which give career department bureaucrats a formal role in choosing participants for the overseas missions, "there will be no politics allowed in the selection process," Daley said at a news conference.
The announcement by Daley, a scion of Chicago's powerful political family, marked one of the first public steps in his promised crusade to ensure that the department rids itself of partisan political taint.
At his Senate confirmation hearing in late January, Daley vowed to suspend trade missions for 30 days and study the procedures governing them for possible changes.
By acknowledging that the procedures need a significant overhaul, Daley may be giving ammunition to the Clinton administration's critics, who assert that the Commerce Department became a hotbed of partisan activity under the stewardship of the late Ronald H. Brown, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Brown's zeal for taking groups of corporate chieftains abroad on export promotion trips, though widely praised by the business community, drew allegations that seats on his plane were often used to reward or attract contributions to the Democrats.
Under Brown's tenure, the procedures for choosing companies to go on trade missions were never laid out in explicit detail. Department trade experts forwarded long lists of candidates based on a variety of criteria, including the likelihood of winning an export contract. After vetting by the legal department, final selection was usually made by Brown and a handful of trusted lieutenants, some of whom had worked for him at the Democratic National Committee.
Daley rejected suggestions that his announcement should be construed as an admission of prior wrongdoing by the department.
"This was about going forward, not looking back," he said of his study, repeatedly asserting that he had not examined how participants were selected on prior trade missions.
But tacitly conceding that the allegations have badly wounded the department, he said he was acting because "there have been questions raised" about whether partisanship played a role in the selection process for missions.
Daley defended such missions as essential to helping U.S. companies stay competitive in the face of other countries' export promotion activities, and he said the new policy "fulfills the needs of the business community . . . while also maintaining the integrity of the Commerce Department."
Accordingly, he said, "I am fully confident that the Commerce Department can resume trade missions."
Under the 17 pages of guidelines, any information pertaining to the political affiliation or contributions of a company or executive would be excluded from consideration by department officials as they prepare lists of participants for trade missions.
Moreover, for trade missions led by the commerce secretary or other senior department officials, the initial selection of participants would be made by a group of at least three department officials, and final approval would be made by a group of five each panel including a majority of career officials.
Finally, Daley said, the whole process will be "fully transparent . . . where relevant documents will be available on the public record," a measure department officials said would strongly discourage any partisan hanky-panky.
The move was derided as "cosmetic" by one of the department's severest critics, Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch Inc., a watchdog group.
"It's obviously an improvement over what existed," Klayman said, but he questioned whether career officials could exercise truly independent judgment if political appointees were also present on the selection panels.
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