Lawmaker seeks probe of White House secrecy pledge

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 18, 2011 6:47pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key Republican lawmaker on Friday called for an independent probe of an Obama administration practice that prohibited outside groups from participating in early discussions on rental housing policy unless they pledged secrecy.

The White House required more than 80 housing groups to sign a nondisclosure agreement pledging not to share information on what was discussed at meetings they attended of an administration interagency rental housing policy group.

"I will not, without the written permission of (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), reveal, divulge or publicize any information covered under this agreement or disseminate any oral, written or electronic information obtained under this collaboration," said the document, provided to Reuters by Representative Judy Biggert.

The Rental Policy Working Group, led by the White House Domestic Policy Council, includes officials from HUD and the Agriculture and Treasury Departments. As part of the rulemaking process, the group may have had access to market-sensitive information.

Biggert, an Illinois Republican who chairs the House of Representatives panel charged with overseeing HUD, asked HUD's acting Inspector General Michael Stephens to determine if any laws were broken.

In a letter dated Thursday to Stephens and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Biggert asked for "an explanation of the circumstances under which these documents were utilized."

"Who requested that they be signed? Why were they deemed necessary?" the letter asked. Biggert requested answers by March 3.

Some participants initially refused to sign the document at an early February meeting, Biggert said in the letter, citing someone who brought the document to her attention but who did not attend that meeting.

The matter could prove embarrassing for the Obama administration, which has been vocal in its advocacy for policymaking transparency.

Biggert noted that President Barack Obama had instructed agency heads to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government."

Obama administration spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said the Rental Policy Working Group had shown its commitment to open government by allowing more people to be involved earlier in the policy development process than prior administrations.

"We will continue to engage a broad range of stakeholders, and will do so in a way that maintains the integrity of our decision-making process," Roussell said.

(Reporting by Corbett B. Daly; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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