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Commerce Department Defends Its Ethics After Senator Warren Slams Tech Ties

(Bloomberg) -- The Commerce Department said it observes “unprecedented, heightened” ethical standards in response to criticism that it’s beholden to the interests of the world’s largest technology companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc.

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In a letter to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has criticized the department’s ties to the tech industry, the Commerce Department’s senior adviser for legislative affairs wrote that the agency complies with the laws and regulations preventing conflicts of interest among government officials, as well as the Biden administration’s ethics pledge.

The response comes after months of scrutiny from progressive lawmakers and groups who say the Commerce Department’s personnel and policies demonstrate excessive ties to the largest technology companies. The clash with the left wing of the Democratic Party has focused particularly on staff brought in under Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Warren responded to Raimondo on Thursday, saying the department’s response wasn’t enough to quell her concerns. The letter didn’t “provide information on how you would address the untoward influence of Big Tech on free-trade agreements,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a follow-up letter.

Washington Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, the head of the House progressive caucus, also signed on to the letter.

The Commerce Department said in a statement that President Joe Biden and Raimondo share the same views on paring back the power of the largest tech companies and that all of the department’s political appointees were approved by the White House.

A report earlier this year from the government ethics group Revolving Door Project found that the department has a number of former tech company employees in key positions overseeing tech policy issues. Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff, Luis Jimenez, was a member of the government affairs team at Google for four years, and her deputy White House liaison, Calynn Jenkins, worked on Amazon’s public policy team.

The letter from the Commerce Department also noted that Raimondo is committed to putting “families and workers” at the center of its economic policies, while also promoting “innovation” by the tech industry.

Warren has pummeled Raimondo’s office in recent months as the Commerce Secretary helps to lead conversations within the US-EU Trade and Technology Council as well as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, two trade negotiations that would heavily impact the tech industry. Under previous administrations, trade policies have enshrined special rights for the largest tech companies, making it more difficult for countries to regulate them.

Warren urged Raimondo to ignore the tech industry’s policy suggestions, saying they would “obstruct regulators’ efforts to protect the digital rights of workers, consumers, and small businesses.”

The Commerce Department oversees key trade issues for US business and officials traditionally maintain close ties to corporations.

(Updates with statement from Commerce Department in sixth paragraph)

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