Intense vetting underway for Obama hires

ByMimi Hall, USA TODAY
November 19, 2008, 5:48 PM

WASHINGTON -- The first thing then-White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein did was apologize to the job candidate he was about to interview. He told him he was going to ask him very personal questions that would make them both uncomfortable.

"You're going to want to go home and take a shower when this is over — and so am I," Duberstein says he told the candidate, a man whose privacy he insists on protecting, even two decades later.

As President Reagan's gatekeeper, he was determined to protect his boss from the embarrassment and distraction of a bungled nomination to one of the top jobs in the country.

That's what President-elect Barack Obama's team is doing now as they scour the backgrounds of hundreds of candidates for everything from mid-level White House jobs to the Cabinet.

"In this process, you're guilty until proven innocent," says Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Using an updated version of the types of vetting questionnaires used by transition teams and White House staffers before them, Obama's lawyers are asking candidates to dig deep and come forward with some of the most private details of their personal and professional lives — as well as those of their spouses.

An e-mail that could be embarrassing? An old diary entry that makes you blush? A loan you're not proud of? A late tax payment? An arrest?

These all are on Obama's 63-item background questionnaire — and the word to those in the running for top jobs is that they better cough up the answers now because the information will surely come out later.

"It's about transparency," Duberstein says. "You have to ask these questions, because in any White House, there should be no surprises."

Problems aren't always rooted out before a candidate is publicly named.

Zoë Baird, Bill Clinton's initial pick for attorney general, withdrew when word got out that she'd hired and failed to pay taxes for an illegal immigrant who'd worked as her nanny.

More than a decade later, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik withdrew his name as President Bush's choice for Homeland Security secretary amid questions about the immigration status of a housekeeper-nanny he had employed. Kerik later became the subject of an unrelated federal criminal investigation, and in 2007, he was indicted on charges that included tax fraud and obstruction of justice.

Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to Clinton who also vetted candidates for Clinton's transition in 1992, says Baird's nanny problem was "fully disclosed" during her interviews and the president's lawyers determined that she had made a mistake — but not a disqualifying one.

For the vetters, Davis says, "there's no science to it, it's all art."

Experts say mistakes are inevitable. "It's as predictable as the sun rising," Light says. "Obama will have a bad appointment. It will be a high-level appointment, somebody with pristine connections and a gold-plated résumé, but something will go wrong."

To try to guard against it, Light says about half of all candidates hire someone to help them pull together the documents they'll need to answer all the questions.

In Obama's questionnaire, there are sections on "domestic help," "relationships and affiliations," "financial information," "tax information" and more.

Even Bill and Hillary Clinton — perhaps the nation's most vetted couple — would be asked to divulge information about their finances if she were to win a seat in Obama's Cabinet.

Those who make it through round one and are nominated to one of the more than 600 posts that require Senate confirmation face what Light calls the "quadruple whammy." That includes three more rounds of vetting by the Senate, the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics.

"When you sign up for public service, you have to sign up for a level of transparency that is intense," says Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan group that promotes effective government. "It's the proverbial fishbowl."

Duberstein agrees the process is intense. He remembers being able to relax a little bit on the day of his interview in 1988, when the candidate told him at the start: "You're in for a very boring Sunday afternoon."

With that, Duberstein says, "I knew he'd get the job."

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