Senior White House official has ties to Amazon, adding new ingredient to Bezos-Biden drama

Critics have argued that Dunn’s mix between his role at SKDK and his stints in the White House creates ethical dilemmas for White House Biden. She had served in the White House in the early months of the administration before returning to her cabinet, then recently returned in anticipation of midterm reviews.

“It shows how well-connected Amazon is… [its mastery] playing the game of influence peddling by hiring former government officials as lobbyists and playing backwards by installing their own colleagues and friends in positions of the government itself,” said Craig Holman, finance lobbyist for campaigning and lobbying with the advocacy organization, Public Citoyen.

But the White House and the SKDK say any accusations of influence peddling or impropriety are misinformed.

A White House official said Dunn, in particular, had not served on an Amazon account and added that under the administration’s ethics pledge, Dunn would be recused from cases involving SKDK or customers. where she worked for the previous two years. However, she would not need to recuse herself from cases involving Amazon, the official said. And while SKDK partner Jill Zuckman did not comment on the company’s work for Amazon, she maintained that the company is “a political and strategic communications firm that works for a variety of foundations, non-profit and for-profit clients on a range of issues”.

“We are not lobbyists and we have not and do not lobby the federal government,” she said.

But Holman, among others, has quibbled with this distinction, saying that SKDK’s communication work “may not be considered to register under LDA. [the Lobbying Disclosure Act]but it is influence peddling by trying to influence public opinion to favor its clients.

A former Amazon employee familiar with the DC office’s approach said that in hiring companies like SKDK, the company was not just looking for communications expertise, but explicitly trying to build relationships with powerful political players. .

“You’re really buying access to people like Anita…who have juice to help open doors for you to meet admin people or talk to people,” the former employee said.

The former employee said SKDK primarily works for Amazon’s cloud computing arm, AWS, as it competes with rival cloud computing giant Microsoft. A former SKDK employee also said Amazon lawyers hired the firm to do public relations work related to litigation over JEDI, the highly competitive Pentagon contract that would have allowed a company to build the infrastructure for Department of Defense cloud computing. Microsoft won the contract, but it was ultimately dropped by the Biden administration. A White House official argued that the contract decision came from the Department of Defense, not the White House.

While most of SKDK’s work for Amazon has revolved around its cloud computing business, the company has also considered hiring SKDK to do broader policy work as Amazon faces serious regulatory threats from the part of the Biden administration, the former Amazon said. employee.

Amazon did not return a request for comment. But bringing SKDK into the fold is just one of many steps it has taken to bolster its presence in Washington. Amazon has aggressively hired a number of former government officials as it flounders in government contracts. And Jay Carney, a former Obama White House press secretary and former communications director for then-Vice President Biden, is now the company’s senior vice president for global affairs.

Meanwhile, the company has attempted to navigate a number of political hot spots, most recently its efforts to curb unionization among employees. Earlier this month, Biden met with union leaders, including Amazon organizing chief Christian Smalls, whose efforts culminated in a successful unionization vote at a factory in Staten Island, NY And at the annual conference of building trades unions in North America in April, the president warned, “By the way, Amazon here we come . Watch.”

Bezos, meanwhile, amplified his criticism of the current administration. Taking to Twitter, he took issue with a tweet from Biden that confused inflation with corporate taxes. Towards the White House answerwho also pointed out that Biden had just met with labor organizers at Amazon and elsewhere, Bezos responded: “Look, a squirrel!”

For some activists, the White House agitation against Amazon is not enough. Anti-Amazon group Athena Coalition called on Biden to immediately cut ties with people or companies who themselves have ties to Amazon.

“Conspiring with Amazon in any business transaction is incongruous with democracy: Amazon’s extensive list of political, lobbying and communications ventures is no exception,” the coalition said in a statement. “[A]Any company that represents them or helps them has no business in or around our government – on either side of the aisle, or in any branch. The conflict of interest is too great and the stakes are too high.

A White House official has argued that the administrations have crafted “the toughest ethics rules in history.” Activists also welcomed Biden’s promise to bar staff from working on issues they have previously had business dealings with. Nevertheless, some of them stated that there were questions posed by permitted conduct under such guidelines, including at the SKDK and Amazon link level.

“Sometimes I think the real story is what’s legal but doesn’t necessarily inspire … public confidence in policy-making at the federal level. And this, I think, could be a good example of that,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the accountability group Project On Government Oversight.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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