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Trump’s pick to run Labor’s pension agency: Mitch McConnell’s brother-in-law

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. (Jack Gruber/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Trump has selected a Washington outsider to head the government agency responsible for paying back dissolved pensions.

That might be welcome news for Trump voters who want the president to fulfill a promise to “drain the swamp” and rid the capital of the politically connected.

Yet Trump’s nominee, Gordon Hartogensis, is well known to some of Washington’s most politically influential people: He is the brother-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Chao’s sister Grace is married to Hartogensis.

Hartogensis was nominated to direct the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a Labor Department agency that collects insurance premiums from sponsors of defined-benefit plans and pays out benefits when companies cannot meet their obligations.

His nomination requires confirmation by the Senate. If confirmed, he would replace W. Thomas Reeder Jr., an Obama administration official appointed in October 2015.

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Hartogensis declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday. His current position is managing his family’s trust, according to his LinkedIn page.

His nomination by Trump raised questions among government ethics experts on the selection process and vetting for Hartogensis, a nominee with no apparent public service experience or direct insight into the agency’s mission.

“The White House’s process for naming and vetting candidates is flawed,” Scott Amey, the general counsel for the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, said Tuesday. “This seems to be another example of who you know rather than what you know.”

Amey, an expert on government ethics, told The Washington Post that the latest nomination is a “pattern for this administration that raises red flags about how seriously they’re taking the daily operation of the government.”

Another example Amey cited: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson inviting his businessman son on a Baltimore “listening tour” that agency officials warned would violate ethics rules.

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In a statement, the White House said Hartogensis’s recent experience as an investment manager makes him uniquely qualified to run the agency. He is expected to turn around the office’s growing problems, including a deficit that has doubled since 2013, the White House said.

The Presidential Personnel Office, a White House operation that recruits and vets appointees, has itself been beset by questions about inexperience and mismanagement following a Post investigation in March.

It was unclear Tuesday whether McConnell or Chao made a recommendation based on their familial relationship with Hartogensis.

The White House declined to address questions about Hartogensis’s connections to Trump’s Cabinet and McConnell, and whether Chao or McConnell played a role in his nomination.

The Department of Transportation and a spokeswoman for McConnell declined to comment, referring queries to the White House.

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White House statement said Hartogensis is “an investor and technology sector leader with experience managing financial equities, bonds, private placements, and software development.”

Hartogensis does not appear to have any government experience as he readies for a job that protects the current and future pensions of 1.5 million people.

Before managing the family trust, according to his LinkedIn page, he was the chief executive and co-founder of Auric Technology from 2004 until he left the software company in 2011. He previously worked in senior positions at other technology companies.

Hartogensis would head the agency as it struggles with a number of crises, particularly one caused by the growing number of multi-employer plans that are severely underfunded and projected to become insolvent.

According to its last annual report, the PBGC’s program for multi-employer pensions ran a widening deficit of $65.1 billion, while its deficit for single-employer plans had contracted to $10.9 billion. Those deficits represent the gap between the agency’s assets and its liabilities.

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.

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