Joe Biden's cabinet picks face scrutiny over corporate ties

Rozina Sabur
·4-min read
Tony Blinken's selection for Secretary of State has caused concern among some government ethics advocates - Mike Coppola /Getty
Tony Blinken's selection for Secretary of State has caused concern among some government ethics advocates - Mike Coppola /Getty

Joe Biden's decision to appoint a number of officials with ties to WestExec, a high-powered consulting operation with a secret roster of clients, has come under scrutiny, with critics accusing the president-elect of returning to the "swamp" of Washington establishment politics.

Two of Mr Biden senior Cabinet nominees hail from the consulting firm, while several more WestExec employees are helping the president-elect's transition team prepare for office in January. 

The company was co-founded in 2017 by Tony Blinken, Mr Biden's longtime adviser and his nominee to be secretary of state, and Michele Flournoy, a former defence official and a top contender to lead the Pentagon in the Biden administration.

Another former WestExec employee, Avril Haines, has been selected as Mr Biden's director of national intelligence.

Mr Biden's transition team is also heavily populated with WestExec staffers, with five of the company's employees currently on leave from the firm to advise the Biden camp and help fill positions in the Pentagon, Treasury and other government departments.

Michele Flournoy is seen as a potential defence secretary, but concerns have been raised about her past links to defence contractors - Yuri Gripas /Reuters
Michele Flournoy is seen as a potential defence secretary, but concerns have been raised about her past links to defence contractors - Yuri Gripas /Reuters

The ties between the Biden campaign and WestExec go deeper still. According to Politico, more than half of the staff listed on the company's website have donated to the Biden campaign, while Ms Flournoy alone raised more than $100,000 for the Democrat.

WestExec, named after West Executive Avenue - the road connecting the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office - uses its staff's past experience in senior government positions to advise companies on their business interests.

The company's website touts its employees' insights into government operations, marketing its ability to bring "the Situation Room to the Board Room".

But it is this same revolving door between the private sector and government service which has attracted criticism from progressives and Republicans alike, who have criticised what they see as a return to corporate influence in US politics.

Marc Lotter, a former communications director for the Trump campaign, responded to the news of Mr Biden's appointments, tweeting: "Return of the swamp", the term Donald Trump has used to describe the influence of money in Washington politics.

Ben Shapiro, an influential conservative commentator, also lashed out at Mr Biden's "back to normal" approach to selecting his Cabinet, which he argued had driven disenchanted voters to Mr Trump in the first place.

"Back to normal means the same cast... who occupied high positions of power and in a flowered and honeyed language spoke soft promises... that were never fulfilled, sold out the interests of the united states... and got rich in the process," he said on his "Ben Shapiro Show" podcast this week. "And yet we're being told by Washington we're going to go back to that normal."

Mr Biden's appointments have also raised concern among progressives in his party and good government advocates, who warn the candidates' links to WestExec and other corporate interests may be a point of contention during their Senate confirmation hearings.

Danielle Brian, from the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, has also raised concerns about Ms Flournoy and Jeh Johnson, two leading contenders to be Mr Biden's defence secretary, over their past work in the corporate defence industry.

"If you want to demonstrate independence from defense contractor interests you can do better JoeBiden," she tweeted.

Mr Biden's transition team has sought to limit the influence of lobbyists among its ranks. However, as WestExe does not directly lobby the US government or for federal funding on its clients' behalf, the company is exempt from the strict disclosure rules which apply to lobbyists, such as revealing its client list - something which has drawn scrutiny from transparency advocates.

WestExec's client list and its work is now coming under scrutiny from Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the panel which will consider Mr Biden’s nominees to senior national security posts.

In particular, Republicans say they want to know more about whether WestExec advised foreign companies or individuals with ties to foreign powers, which they argue could create a conflict of interest.

WestExec says most of its work involves US corporations with overseas operations and a small number of companies from "closely allied countries".

The company said it does not have any Chinese or Turkish clients and has committed to disclosing its clients as required during the confirmation process.

The Biden transition team has said nominees will comply with all ethics requirements and that Mr Blinken, the nominee for Secretary of State, will sell his stake in WestExec if confirmed to the role.