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Senators seek details on trade officials who sought auto clients

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WASHINGTON — Two senators asked the U.S. trade chief for details about officials who allegedly sought private-sector consulting work while still government employees and said the episode raises questions about policies at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

“Americans deserve to know that their trade policy is made in the public interest and not for private gain,” Democrats Bob Menendez, of New Jersey and Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, said in a letter Wednesday to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

The lawmakers asked Lighthizer whether the two officials still work at the trade office, and for details about approvals from the ethics office at the trade representative’s office.

“This example also raises broader questions about ethics policies and procedures at USTR,” they wrote.

Lighthizer told lawmakers June 17 that he was troubled to learn of the workers’ actions. He said the two were career officials, and that he was told that civil servants were permitted to pursue such activities as opposed to political appointees. The activity had been run through his office’s ethics officials, he testified.

The chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, Richard Neal, has also asked Lighthizer for more information about the allegations including what advice the two men received from the agency’s ethics office.

The officials — Jason Bernstein and Fred Fischer — might have been in violation of several ethics rules by allegedly soliciting clients for a consulting firm they intended to start after leaving the government, the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that favors limiting the influence of money in politics, said in a filing. The document cited reporting by Bloomberg News.

The two declined to comment when reached by telephone in June. On Wednesday a telephone call with Bernstein ended abruptly when a reporter identified himself, and a voice message left for Fischer wasn’t immediately returned. The USTR didn’t respond to requests for information on the two. Emails sent to their government accounts drew automated responses saying they no longer worked for the agency.

Bernstein and Fischer were involved in negotiating the trade rules around autos, and reached out to companies to offer help dealing with the regulations after they leave government service, according to Bloomberg reporting.

“As you know, Jason and I are looking to leave USTR, and we would like to assist companies directly with their USMCA implementation needs,” Fischer, the USTR’s senior automotive industry trade adviser, wrote in early June in an email to an auto industry representative that was seen by Bloomberg News.

The email referred the recipient to autovisory.com, which Fischer in the email called “our website,” for additional information. The company’s website and its Instagram and Twitter accounts appeared to have been deactivated after Bloomberg News sought comment on June 12.

The rules they helped negotiate are part of President Donald Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which went into effect Wednesday and replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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