New information suggests former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt is paying the salaries of several White House officials.
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President Joe Biden handed his science office unparalleled access and power, and one outside adviser to that office has achieved an unusual level of influence, according to staffers.
Over the past year, a foundation run by Eric Schmidt, the multibillionaire former CEO of Google, has played a significant, albeit secret, role in creating the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
According to conversations with current and former White House staff members and internal emails, more than a dozen officials in the 140-person White House office have been associates of Schmidt’s, including some current and former Schmidt employees.
Schmidt kept in touch with Eric Lander, the president’s former science adviser, and other Biden appointees. Schmidt Futures, his charitable arm, indirectly supported the wages of two science-office staffers, including the current head of staff, Marc Aidinoff, who, following Lander’s retirement in February, is now one of the office’s most senior officials for six weeks. Schmidt Futures’ chief innovation officer, OSTP alum Tom Kalil, was also on the company’s payroll while working as an unpaid consultant at the science office for four months last year, until he was fired due to ethics objections.
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Schmidt has been trying to influence federal science policy for a long time, extending back to his close links to the Obama administration. While his spokespeople claimed that his efforts to assist Biden were part of Schmidt Futures’ mission to “focus and mobilize these networks of talent to solve specific problems in science and society,” his foundation’s involvement in funding positions for specific figures raised red flags from White House watchdogs on multiple occasions.
Schmidt is on the boards of a number of technological businesses, particularly those that deal with artificial intelligence. He owns a 20% ownership in DE Shaw a hedge fund that has over $60 billion in investments and committed resources. Shaw is an investor in Abacus.AI and sits on the board of Rebellion Defense, an AI-focused defence contractor. He recently invested in Sandbox AQ which is a new startup that is a spin-off of an internal Google software team that says it will combine “AI + Quantum tech to solve hard problems impacting society,” and became it’s chair.
He’s also a board member of Civis Analytics a data science firm that’s helped Democratic campaigns, including Biden’s 2020 campaign, target consumers and voters.
Wallace filed a formal complaint against Lander’s handling of her as an employee last fall. Landler resigned on February 18 after finding “credible evidence” that he had bullied Wallace and broken workplace rules with other employees.
Lander’s bullying, Wallace believes, was in response to her repeated ethical objections to Lander’s intentions, including the office’s pursuit of financing for extra employees from Schmidt-connected organisations.
“I and others on the legal team had been noticing a large number of staff with financial connections to Schmidt Futures and were increasingly concerned about the influence this organisation was able to have through these individuals,” said Wallace. Wallace is now being represented as a whistleblower by the Government Accountability Project. In early March, GAP and Wallace formally filed a whistleblower case.
Lander’s spokesman declined to comment on particular issues, saying only that “throughout his tenure, Dr. Lander strictly adhered to all White House ethics policies.”
The White House said there was nothing strange about its connections to Schmidt and that ethical concerns were promptly and properly handled.
A focus on AI and 5G
Schmidt has prioritised the development of 5G technology and artificial intelligence in his post-Google activities, as well as biotech ventures, and has urged for a bigger federal role in funding both.
The science office’s representative refuted the notion that its work aligned with Schmidt’s aims, pointing to the office’s efforts to restrict AI use.
“You’re trying to tell a story of agency capture — that one philanthropy has influence over policy outcomes,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “And yet, OSTP is executing on an aggressive agenda to protect the civil rights of all Americans impacted by algorithmic discrimination in the use of artificial intelligence and automated systems, is working across government to gather data that will help ensure that government delivers services more equitably, and is evaluating the mental health harms caused by social media platforms. We are proud to be defined by our work.”
Regarding the number of personnel connected with Schmidt Futures, the spokesperson said “As a small office with a $5 million annual budget that had just become cabinet level and was charged with addressing huge issues like the climate and future pandemics, OSTP senior staff, including Eric Lander, pushed to find ways to quickly bring on subject matter experts. As part of the onboarding process, OSTP’s legal counsel reviews potential ethical conflicts and directs remedial actions or recusals.”
The spokesperson added “Furthermore, consistent with Congress’s statutory direction, OSTP works with numerous outside groups on a variety of important and critical science and technology matters, and staff come to OSTP from many different federal agencies, universities, and outside entities.”
Former White House ethics chief Norm Eisen,said regarding Schmidt Futures “You might say that the desire of a philanthropy to support government is noble, but at least the appearance question that is raised is whether government should be making its own determinations about that. There should not be the appearance that perhaps outside actors are unduly shaping that policy.”
Eisen added, “it’s not all appearances issues here. There are some significant challenges that were identified. I do think that those are meritorious and the White House came out in the right place in the end. The ethics sausage making isn’t always pretty.”
A foray into politics
Schmidt has had a symbiotic connection with senior Democrats since the 1990s. In 1994, as CTO of Sun MicroSystems, he assisted in the development of Bill Clinton’s first White House website, WhiteHouse.gov.
In October 2008, when Schmidt was the CEO of Google, he went on the campaign trail supporting Obama, but stressed that he was “doing this personally” because “Google is officially neutral.”
According to a study by The Intercept and the Campaign for Accountability, corporate representatives attended White House meetings more than once a week on average from 2009 to 2015, when Schmidt was Google CEO and later executive chair.
Blinken congratulated Schmidt and referred to him as a “friend” at the NSCAI’s “Global Emerging Technology Summit” in July 2021, which has since been disbanded by statute.