Troubling conflicts of interest over Google exec’s financial ties to WH staffers, influential reach

Through considerable digging, it is becoming clearer every day how corporations have been using charitable organizations to avoid ethics violations and skirt the law in order to strategically fund their way toward greater prosperity.

Previous explanations of dark money-funneling have already indicated that President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nomination was influenced by the questionably-funded activist group Demand Justice. As reported, anonymous donors pay into funds operated by the for-profit firm Arabella investments that then distribute those funds to nonprofits without investor fingerprints.

Now it appears that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is conducting similar financial arrangements for his benefit in the Biden White House. According to POLITICO, of the 140 employees in the White House, more than a dozen are directly associated with Schmidt; including current and former employees of his.

In particular, the billionaire has used his charity, Schmidt Futures, to indirectly pay the salaries of two employees within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) including Mark Aidinoff, the current chief of staff, for six weeks.

Schmidt had a close relationship with Eric Lander who was Biden’s science adviser until he was forced to resign in February regarding violation of workplace standards including the bullying of whistleblower Rachel Wallace.

Wallace was general counsel for OSTP and was involved in the allegations of ethical concerns pertaining to Landers who, according to the Washington Post, had her reassigned.

“I and others on the legal team had been noticing a large number of staff with financial connections to Schmidt Futures and were increasingly concerned about the influence this organization was able to have through these individuals,” Wallace told POLITICO.

After Lander had been tapped to head OSTP, his own biotech organization, Broad Institute, had been provided with a $150 million endowment to “catalyze a new scientific discipline at the intersection of biology and machine learning.”

The significance of this cannot be overlooked as Schmidt, who was previously on the board of Broad, sits on a number of technology companies’ boards that are geared toward artificial intelligence and would benefit considerably from OSTP help. Schmidt also sits on the board of Civis Analytics and provided help with data science to target voters for 2020 Democratic campaigns, including Biden’s.

OSTP legal analyst Min Hee Kim explained in a letter requesting another OSTP employee withdraw from their fellowship that Schmidt Futures’ “strong interest in scientific discoveries and innovative technologies, poses a very significant conflict of interest,” with positions in the White House.

These and similar claims have been disputed by a spokesperson for the OSTP who argues, “You’re trying to tell a story of agency capture – that one philanthropy has influence over policy outcomes.”

“And yet,” the statement continued, “OSTP is executing on an aggressive agenda to protect the civil rights of all Americans impacted by algorithmic discrimination in the use of artificial intelligence and automated systems, is working across government to gather data that will help ensure that government delivers services more equitably, and is evaluating the mental health harms caused by social media platforms. We are proud to be defined by our work.”

“As a small office with a $5 million annual budget that had just become cabinet-level and was charged with addressing huge issues like the climate and future pandemics, OSTP senior staff, including Eric Lander, pushed to find ways to quickly bring on subject matter experts,” it went on. “As part of the onboarding process, OSTP’s legal counsel reviews potential ethical conflicts and directs remedial actions or recusals.”

“Furthermore, consistent with Congress’s statutory direction, OSTP works with numerous outside groups on a variety of important and critical science and technology matters, and staff comes to OSTP from many different federal agencies, universities, and outside entities,” the statement added.

In summary, the spokesperson is arguing that they had limited time to get people to do good work and so they shouldn’t necessarily be held accountable if there is some questionable overlap because, again, they do good work.

Even the former White House ethics czar for the Obama administration acknowledged, “It’s not all appearances issues here. There are some significant challenges that were identified.  I do think that those are meritorious and the White House came out in the right place in the end. The ethics sausage-making isn’t always pretty.”

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