The separate efforts by one of Biden’s most influential advisers and his brother, with whom he partnered in a lobbying firm until 2012, had been popping up for weeks on the radar of White House ethics lawyers, who are charged with fulfilling Biden’s promise to “restore ethics in government.”
They required Steve Ricchetti to recuse himself from involvement with “particular matters” for four companies that paid his brother to lobby Biden’s executive office — pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline, Vaxart and Horizon Therapeutics, as well as TC Energy, the company that oversaw the now-canceled Keystone XL pipeline project — according to a White House official briefed on the arrangement.
But under White House ethics guidance, Jeff Ricchetti’s work with GM did not trigger a recusal for his brother — because his lobbying targeted a Cabinet agency and not the Executive Office of the President and because the issue of electric charging stations applied broadly to the car industry and was not considered a matter specific to the company, according to the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
The booming business and political influence of the Ricchetti brothers have served as an early test case of just how far Biden will go to make good on his promise to turn the page on the Trump administration’s approach to ethics. Biden has vowed to ban his own family from involvement in government, disclose records of White House visitors and support new legislation that would expand the definition of lobbying and mandate more-detailed disclosure of contacts with White House officials.
But when it comes to dealing with the family and former employer relationships of senior staffers, some of whom have close relatives or former bosses who work in the private sector on public policy issues, the White House has largely reverted to existing precedent.
Jeff Ricchetti has been able to dramatically expand his work during the Biden administration, contacting people who work with his brother or know him as President Biden’s governing consigliere. Since May 2020, just after Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Jeff Ricchetti has signed 12 new clients, including the four contracts that have him in contact with Biden’s office and four others that have him contacting Cabinet-level agencies, according to filings. The firm he founded with Steve Ricchetti has reported making $820,000 in the first three months of this year, according to the most recent federal filings available. That represented nearly five times what it made in the same period last year.
“Jeff Ricchetti’s business has never been better. And I don’t think he’s gotten any smarter in the last year or two,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, an initiative of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research that scrutinizes executive-branch appointees. “I just think his brother has ascended further.”
Biden’s ban on family involvement in government does not extend to senior staffers. The “revolving door” rules Biden has put in place to prevent officials from working with former employers does not apply to Steve Ricchetti, because he formally left the lobbying firm he founded with his brother, Ricchetti Inc., nine years ago, outside the two-year window that the White House uses to define a conflict.
“Building on the practices of the Obama-Biden Administration, the President has instituted the highest ethical standards of anyone to have ever held this office. And he’s proud of his government reform agenda,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement responding to a request for comment from Steve Ricchetti.
Jeff Ricchetti declined an interview request and said in an email that he had recently shifted his lobbying approach, after disclosing contacts with the Executive Office of the President. Both brothers have said they do not speak with each other about Jeff Ricchetti’s business.
“I have not lobbied my brother and I no longer lobby the White House Office,” he said in an email Thursday. He did not respond to follow-up questions about when he stopped or what specifically he meant by “White House Office.”
Some ethics experts have urged White House attorneys to go even further than they have to separate Steve Ricchetti from his brother’s work.
“Steve Ricchetti ought to completely recuse himself from any part of the legislation that his brother’s firm is lobbying on, and then have the White House not take calls from his brother,” said Richard Painter, who served as the top White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush between 2005 and 2007.
The White House counsel has relied instead on overlapping legal and voluntary restrictions that have allowed Jeff Ricchetti’s lobbying practice to flourish with only a minimal impact on his brother’s White House role.
These rules allow Steve Ricchetti to continue to work on legislation, policies and issues that his brother has lobbied the White House and the administration about, as long as he avoids being involved in “particular matters,” a term that is generally defined as concerns specific to a single company. Steve Ricchetti has also recused himself from particular matters involving AT&T, a corporate client he personally worked for last year while chairing Biden’s presidential campaign, the White House official said.
The Treasury Department announced Monday that Steve Ricchetti’s son J.J. Ricchetti is joining the agency as a special assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs, a relatively low-level position. J.J. Ricchetti arrived at his new job “after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in political science,” the Treasury Department said in a news release. Jeff Ricchetti has lobbied the Treasury Department this year for Finseca, a trade group for the life insurance and annuities industry, on a range of legislative issues, including estate-tax issues and legislation to expand labor protections.
A White House official said that the Biden administration prioritizes hiring former campaign volunteers and that J.J. Ricchetti was one.
Two other children of Steve Ricchetti, both with more prior experience in their fields, also work in the federal government. Daniel Ricchetti is a senior adviser in the office of the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Shannon Ricchetti is deputy associate director of the office of the White House social secretary. Politico previously reported on their positions.
As counselor to the president, Steve Ricchetti is one of the most powerful people in the Biden White House and one of the president’s most trusted advisers. A longtime Biden confidant, he has played a significant role in negotiations over Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plan. He served as White House deputy chief of staff during the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, at a time when his brother Jeff was lobbying Clinton’s office for the Podesta Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm, according to federal filings.
After Clinton left office in 2001, the brothers opened a new lobbying shop, Ricchetti Inc., from which they represented an array of companies, including GM, AT&T and multiple pharmaceutical companies, according to federal filings. Steve Ricchetti stopped working as a registered lobbyist in 2009 but continued running the company with his brother until he was hired as an adviser to then-Vice President Biden in 2012. His subsequent work for AT&T, which did not include lobbying, was done through a separate company called Ricchetti Consulting, according to a White House official.
Federal filings show that GM paid Jeff Ricchetti $40,000 in February and March of this year to lobby the House, Senate and Commerce Department on “issues related to infrastructure legislation,” including “tax incentives for electric vehicles and charging stations.”
When Biden traveled to Detroit on May 18, the White House announced that Steve Ricchetti and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo would meet with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was then leading Republican negotiations on infrastructure.
The size of the federal subsidies for charging stations were a sticking point in those negotiations, which have since ended without a deal. Biden has pushed for $15 billion in new spending to fund the new stations. Capito countered weeks after the Detroit trip with an offer of $4 billion for electric-vehicle infrastructure, which was expected to have included charging stations, without making clear whether that included existing federal programs.
“Jeff Ricchetti among other lobbyists that are registered to advocate on our behalf help GM to advocate for policies that support our customers, dealers and employees, help strengthen our manufacturing presence in the United States and advance our vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion,” Jeannine Ginivan, the manager of public policy communications for GM, said in a statement.
Asked on Air Force One in May about the significant lobbying by the auto industry for electric-car subsidies, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s focus was on what is best for the country. Biden called for new investment in charging stations in 2020. Jeff Ricchetti was hired by GM to work on the issue in February of this year.
“I would say to any skeptics — anyone who’s questioning why we’re investing in the electric-vehicle markets or why the president is proposing that: That’s where jobs are. That’s where the future of the auto manufacturing is,” Psaki said.
Marc Palazzo, the vice president of stakeholder relations for TC Energy, said in a statement that Jeff Ricchetti’s lobbying work for that company was “primarily focused on communication with members of Congress and their staffs,” which are also listed as targets of his lobbying on disclosure forms.
TC Energy hired Ricchetti just five days before Biden’s inauguration, paying him $90,000 through the end of March, according to filings. Biden revoked a key permit for the company’s Keystone XL pipeline on the day he took office, and the company announced Wednesday that it would end the project after failing to persuade Biden to change his mind.
Horizon Therapeutics and GlaxoSmithKline have hired Ricchetti, for $80,000 and $60,000 respectively, to work on issues regarding drug pricing and reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid. They also have listed projects for Ricchetti to focus on that are particular to their companies — a thyroid eye disease drug developed by Horizon and a covid-19 antibody treatment developed by GlaxoSmithKline. The Food and Drug Administration signed off on increased production of the eye disease drug in March, after production had been disrupted by government orders that prioritized manufacturing of coronavirus vaccines. The same agency granted emergency use authorization to the antibody treatment in May.
“We retained Ricchetti Inc. in September 2020 based on their long history of working with centrist Democrats on tax and health policy issues,” GlaxoSmithKline said in a statement. Lyndsay Meyer, a spokeswoman for the company, referred additional questions about the timing of Jeff Ricchetti’s work to him. She provided a second statement from the company stating that Jeff Ricchetti’s work involved seeking information about the White House’s covid-19 task force.
“Other than utilizing Ricchetti Inc. to request information from staff about the new structure and priorities of the White House covid task force, GSK did not retain Ricchetti Inc. to lobby the [office of the president],” the statement said.
Horizon Therapeutics spokesman Geoff Curtis said in an email that the company had “no comment” on its contract with Jeff Ricchetti.
Another company, Vaxart, has paid Jeff Ricchetti $80,000 to lobby Biden’s office, the House and the Senate on the company’s development of a different coronavirus vaccine delivery system — a pill rather than shots.
“We have asked Mr. Ricchetti to help us educate policymakers about the oral tablet option,” the company said in a statement.
Amazon Services, which is run by Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post, is among the other companies that hired Ricchetti last year to lobby the House and the Senate, but not the Biden administration, according to filings. The company had paid him $150,000 through the end of March to lobby on issues that include legislation that would regulate online marketplaces and the minimum wage.
Norm Eisen, who developed and implemented White House ethics rules during President Barack Obama’s first term, said that the White House had struck a careful balance between legal requirements and voluntary actions. The law, he said, did not restrict close family members of senior White House officials from lobbying other agencies of the executive branch.
“I think it is laudable that the brother is no longer going to lobby the White House,” Eisen said. “It is not required by law, and it is above and beyond the call of duty.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.