There are a lot of questions to be asked about Andrew Smith, who was recently installed to head the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. Given that Smith previously worked for four years at the law firm Covington & Burling, representing an enormous number of corporate clients, including companies under active investigation by the FTC — including Equifax, Uber, and Facebook — one of those questions is: How will the FTC ensure against conflicts of interest?
Smith’s financial disclosure form, obtained by Public Citizen, lists his work on behalf of big banks, payday lenders, pawn shops, credit reporting companies, pharmaceutical firms, and perhaps worst of all, the Dallas Cowboys.
So Public Citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to Smith’s financial disclosure and potential conflicts of interest, as well as how the agency would ensure Smith’s recusal from matters involving former clients.
The FOIA request produced 495 pages worth of material, another hint at just how deep the conflicts run — but the pages were almost entirely redacted.
Virtually no information is exposed in the document release other than the email headers and footers of Smith, his designated agency ethics officer Lorielle Pankey, and a handful of other FTC officials. Also included are copies of a presidential executive order on ethics and a letter from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., expressing concern about Smith’s appointment; both were already publicly available.
The FTC repeatedly cites Exemption (b)(5) of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency,” to deny Public Citizen access to the records. Other pages employ Exemption (b)(4), protecting “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.”
“Rather than release the documents that would show just how he will remove himself from real or perceived conflicts of interests when these companies are investigated by the agency, the FTC has chosen instead to send a mix of documents that quite literally say nothing,” said Remington Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at Public Citizen.
A handful of the communications include stray lines, such as: “I look forward to hearing from you. The FTC’s Ethics Team is here to assist,” or “Here are my answers to your questions.”
In one of the few readable emails, Samuel Levine, an adviser to FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra (who voted against appointing Smith), asks for a list of Bureau of Consumer Protection matters involving Covington & Burling, Smith’s old firm. Kathleen Benway, the chief of staff for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, replies, “I polled the divisions and regions, and below is the list of matters involving Covington,” but the rest is redacted.
From the looks of the FOIA request, the FTC doesn’t give the public much.
“To me it’s just a slap in the face of the public,” said Gregg in an interview. “It now raises more questions. What are they hiding?” Public Citizen has made no decisions on whether to contest the FOIA redactions, but is considering its options.
The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.