U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told lawmakers he was troubled to learn that two officials in his office had sought private-sector consulting work while still on the government payroll but said the activity was presented to ethics personnel.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey asked Lighthizer at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday about reporting by Bloomberg News that two trade negotiators in his office had told industry representatives they planned to leave the agency and offered their services as consultants.
“I was troubled by that as you are,” Lighthizer said.
Lighthizer said he was told that career personnel -- as opposed to political appointees -- were permitted to seek such business and that the activity had been run through his office’s ethics officials.
“I think we should have a very clear understanding of what is and is not acceptable,” Menendez said. “I don’t care whether you’re career or political.”
Jason Bernstein and Fred Fischer were key negotiators in Lighthizer’s office responsible for the so-called rules of origin that dictate how much of a car must be made in North America to avoid tariffs under President Donald Trump’s renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
They have reached out to companies in the automobile industry to offer help implementing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement after they leave government service, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg News and three people familiar with the communications who requested anonymity to discuss the private exchanges.
“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 last week 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.
“It seems to me that you negotiate elements of an agreement, in this case in the automotive industry, and then while you’re still on the government payroll, you set up a website and you pursue your own interest,” Menendez said. “That’s the ultimate essence of the revolving door and that’s what doesn’t have people have faith and confidence in their government.”
He asked Lighthizer to look into the matter and report back. Lighthizer responded, “I want to follow up, I completely agree with you.”
Press representatives for Lighthizer’s office have not responded to repeated requests for comment about the matter or the employment status of Bernstein and Fischer. Reached by telephone last week, the two men also declined to comment. They did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
USTR’s ethics officers haven’t responded to repeated requests for comment.