Politico

Biden is squaring off with Bezos — and bringing back a top aide with Amazon ties


As the White House this month weighed how hard to engage Amazon founder Jeff Bezos over his criticism of its economic policies, it brought back a senior aide whose firm does work for the company.

Anita Dunn rejoined the administration as a top adviser this month from the powerful communications shop she co-founded, SKDK. The Democratic firm, which has produced a number of current and former administration officials, has a host of major clients in business and politics. One of them is Amazon.

SKDK provided help with a public affairs campaign during Amazon’s efforts to establish a headquarters in New York City, and more recently conducted advocacy around the JEDI, or Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, contract, a $10 billion cloud computing contract with the Department of Defense.

Critics have argued that Dunn’s shuffling between her role at SKDK and her stints at the White House creates ethical dilemmas for the Biden White House. She had served in the White House in the early months of the administration before returning to her firm and then recently came back in anticipation for the midterms.

“It just shows how well-connected Amazon is … [its mastery] at the influence peddling game by both hiring former government officials as their lobbyists and playing the reverse revolving door of planting their own colleagues and friends in positions of government itself,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance and lobbying lobbyist with the advocacy organization, Public Citizen.

But both the White House and SKDK say any accusation of influence peddling or impropriety is misinformed.

A White House official said that Dunn, specifically, did not serve on an Amazon account and added that under the administration’s ethics pledge, Dunn would be recused from matters involving SKDK or clients that she worked for in the previous two years. However, she would not need to recuse herself from matters involving Amazon, the official said. And while SKDK partner Jill Zuckman did not comment on the firm’s work for Amazon, she maintained the company was “a political and strategic communications firm that works for a variety foundations, nonprofit 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, quibbled with that distinction, saying SKDK’s communications work “may not actually qualify as having to register under LDA [the Lobbying Disclosure Act], but it is influence peddling by trying to affect public opinion to favor their clients.”

One former Amazon employee familiar with the D.C. office’s approach said that in hiring firms like SKDK, the company was not only looking for communications expertise but explicitly trying to create relationships with political power players.

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

The former employee said SKDK mostly works for Amazon’s cloud computing arm, AWS, as it competes against rival cloud computing giant Microsoft. A former SKDK employee also said that Amazon’s lawyers brought in the firm to do public relations work related to the litigation over JEDI, the highly competitive Pentagon contract that would have allowed one company to create the Defense Department’s cloud computing infrastructure. Microsoft won the contract, but it was ultimately scrapped by the Biden administration. A White House official maintained that the contract decision came from the Department of Defense, and 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 more general policy work as Amazon faces serious regulatory threats from the Biden administration, said the former Amazon employee.

Amazon did not return a request for comment. But bringing SKDK into the fold is just one of several moves it has made to strengthen its Washington presence. Amazon aggressively hired up a number of former government officials as it waded into government contracting. 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 corporate affairs.

Meanwhile, the company has been trying to navigate a number of political flashpoints, most recently its efforts to curb unionization among employees. Earlier this month, Biden met with union leaders, including Amazon organizing leader Christian Smalls, whose efforts resulted in a successful unionization vote at a facility in Staten Island, N.Y. And at the annual North America’s Building Trades Unions conference in April, the president warned: “By the way, Amazon here we come. Watch.”

Bezos, meanwhile, has amplified his criticism of the current administration. Taking to Twitter, he challenged a Biden tweet that conflated inflation and corporate taxes. To the White House response, which also pointed out that Biden had just met with labor organizers at Amazon and elsewhere, Bezos replied: “Look, a squirrel!”

For some activists, the White House’s agitation at Amazon is not enough. The anti-Amazon group Athena Coalition called for Biden to immediately cut ties with people or corporations who themselves have ties to Amazon.

“Conspiring with Amazon in any business dealing is incongruous with democracy: Amazon’s vast roster of political, lobbying, and communications firms is no exception,” the coalition said in a statement. “[A]ny corporation representing or aiding 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 maintained that the administrations had crafted “the strongest ethics rules in history.” Activists also praised Biden’s pledge to prohibit staff from working on matters on which they’ve had prior business dealings. But still, some of them said there were questions posed by permissible conduct under such guidance, including at the SKDK and Amazon nexus.

“Sometimes I think the real story is what is legal but doesn’t necessarily … inspire public confidence in policymaking 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. 

Continue

About the author

Lisa

Leave a Comment