August 4, 2009 -- The Obama administration is drawing criticism for naming a wealthy campaign donor to a senior health post.
Without a formal announcement, the White House appointed Todd Park, co-founder of electronic health records firm Athenahealth, to be chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services. From that position, the multimillionaire Park is expected to find ways to boost the use of technology to manage Americans' health information.
Park's appointment was publicized in a statement by the company. An HHS spokesperson who declined to be identified confirmed the news.
Park, 36, contributed over $60,000 to organizations boosting Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, and another $5,000 to Obama's transition effort this January. In March, Park gave $30,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
The company says Park will resign and cash in stock and options worth roughly $30 million before taking the HHS post. A company official said Park's resignation would require him to leave behind other stock options that would have brought him $500,000, if he was allowed to exercise them today.
"Todd Park seems to have played the campaign finance system well," said Craig Holman of the Washington, D.C. watchdog group Public Citizen. Holman noted Park contributed $2,000 to Obama's Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain, early on in the campaign, but sent tens of thousands of dollars towards groups backing Obama in the late weeks of the 2008 election. Park could not be reached for comment Monday.
John Hallock, an Athenahealth company spokesman, declined to comment for the record on Holman's comments. He called Park "one of the leading health care entrepreneurs in the nation," and said that the Obama administration is "very excited" to have someone with his experience."He was heavily involved in the Obama campaign and was a big supporter," Hallock said of Park. He called Park's contributions "his personal business."
Park quit his day-to-day post with Athenahealth last August but stayed on as a company director, the post he will forfeit Aug. 10, according to the firm. For the past several months has been a senior fellow on health care issues at the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank run by John Podesta, Obama's transition coordinator. According to his biography on the group's Web site, Park also has been advising an international group on how to improve health care for India's rural poor. He is a Harvard alumnus like Obama.
Park has agreed to recuse himself from any activities that could involve Athenahealth. But that raises separate concerns for Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit which fights to increase transparency and expose waste and corruption in government.
Because Athenahealth is such a significant player in the health care information technology field, Park's recusal could hinder his ability to be effective, Ellis said. "You wind up with a Swiss cheese manager," said Ellis – big holes are cut out of their responsibilities in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
"It's really a challenge, in these technical areas, to find someone who is talented and effective but not conflicted," Ellis conceded. Park's nomination is also symptomatic of Obama's difficulty enforcing a stringent and fair anti-influence policy, said Ellis. The president has barred lobbyists from joining the administration's ranks for fear of undue influence by outside interests -- yet meanwhile professionals like Park arguably pose just as much of a danger and "get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," Ellis said.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry for this story.