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Blog Post | June 17, 2020

“Career” Trade Reps Solicit USMCA Consulting Gigs from Auto Industry

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This week, Bloomberg reported that two officials who helped write the USMCA are now shopping around for consulting gigs with an industry the trade agreement set rules for. Jason Bernstein and Fred Fischer, both Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representatives, reached out to auto industry representatives offering to “assist companies directly with their USMCA implementation needs,” according to Bloomberg’s report. The report did not confirm whether Bernstein and Fischer asked for or received clearance to contact the auto companies, while ethics experts speculate that offering such services while still employed by the government might breach federal ethics requirements. 

Bernstein and Fischer were not alone in their plan to leave the Office of the US Trade Representative as the USMCA goes into effect July 1st: U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s chief of staff, Jamieson Greer, already joined corporate law firm King & Spalding as an international trade partner back in May. All three officials were rumored to be leaving the USTR back in mid-March, a move at odds with their “career” titles. The justified outcry of potential conflicts of interest and ethics violations only came as Bernstein and Fischer said the quiet part loud: their intent to sell insider knowledge and government access to corporations. 

According to their respective Linkedin pages, Bernstein and Fischer have each worked for the USTR for 14 years. Bernstein tellingly boasts about “extensive contacts and experience with a wide range of stakeholders, including C-Suite executives, senior Administration policymakers, Congress, and foreign governments.” Those are connections he presumably made while he and Fischer led negotiations for the automotive rules of origin for the USMCA. During the negotiations, Bernstein met with auto industry executives as well as Canadian and Mexican government officials. Both he and Fischer also met with trade associations in members-only meetings to overview the USMCA’s key points for the auto industry. While these activities are a core function of their duties as trade representatives, the pair’s attempts to leverage those connections into corporate consultancies while still working for the public interest severely calls into question their motives while working for the USTR. 

Bernstein and Fischer’s auto industry solicitations is just one example of government appointees leveraging their insider government access and knowledge for corporate gigs. As the Revolving Door Project investigated, so-called career officials at the FTC often leave their positions regulating competition for partnerships at corporate law and economic consulting firms, the very same firms FTC officials negotiate with and at times litigate against. Recent revolvers also left the FTC for counsel positions at Facebook and Amazon as those corporations face scrutiny on their antitrust records.

Bloomberg’s report on Bernstein and Fischer flouting government ethics rules makes explicit the conflicts of interest that are far too common across the executive branch. The influence of corporate interests and revolving door figures has made “career” positions into a stepping stone for corporate success. Addressing this persistent “revolving door” employment pattern is critical to any populist agenda seeking to rescue the government from corporate capture and turn it into an egalitarian force for justice.

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More articles by Andrea Beaty

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