New health official isn’t saying whether she will avoid conflicts with former lobbying clients

MADISON – Wisconsin’s incoming top health official isn’t saying whether she will step away from decisions affecting the health care clients she represented as a lobbyist.

Karen Timberlake next week will become interim health services secretary. She will replace Andrea Palm, who is stepping down to take the No. 2 post in President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Timberlake served as Wisconsin’s health secretary from 2008 to 2011 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and in recent years has focused on health care issues as a lobbyist with Michael Best Strategies. She shed those clients Tuesday, but in her new job will be able to make decisions that have profound effects on how they operate and their bottom lines.

Karen Timberlake

State law does not require officials to recuse themselves from decisions affecting former clients. The state puts limits on government officials who go on to do lobbying work, but not on lobbyists who become government officials. 

What ethics experts say

Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush and White House staff, said he was concerned that Timberlake could work on Department of Health Services rules that her clients had sought to change.

“You’re going to have a situation where, yeah, it’s legal but it stinks to high heaven,” said Painter, who is now a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.

“You just can’t take a position on something for private clients who pay you to say what they think and then turn around and make an unbiased decision on the same rule.”

Timberlake and administration officials did not give any indications that Timberlake would go beyond state law and establish her own rules to limit her authority over her former clients or issues they worked on. Timberlake is just coming into the job and final decisions on how she will deal with former clients have not been made.

“The Department of Health Services and incoming Secretary Karen Timberlake are aware of Wisconsin’s lobbying and ethics laws and will comply with all of them,” said a statement from the department.

Norman Eisen, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who advised President Barack Obama on lobbying regulations, said Timberlake should adopt her own policy and stay away from issues that she worked on as a lobbyist. Her top deputy should have the final word on those issues, he said.  

“I think at minimum that kind of additional, voluntary separation or something like it is reasonable under these circumstances, though not required (under state law),” he said.

“In ethics we worry about conflict and the appearance of conflicts. I think it’s important to inspire public confidence. Besides de-registering (as a lobbyist), stepping away from the firm, stepping away from her clients, making a clean break even though it’s just an interim position, some additional step will reassure the public. It protects the public interest and it protects her, too.”

Timberlake’s past clients

The Department of Health Services is responsible for programs that have a huge effect on how the health care industry operates and how much money it makes in Wisconsin. It runs state-federal Medicaid programs like BadgerCare Plus and Family Care that cost billions of dollars a year.

Among those Timberlake represented until Tuesday is DentaQuest, an oral health company that says in its lobbying filing it seeks to “transform the financing and delivery system of dental services within Medicaid.”

She also represented MyPath, a company that serves people with disabilities; Rogers Behavioral Health, which lobbies to raise Medicaid payments for behavioral health providers; and the Network for Innovation in Senior Care, a consortium of long-term and rehabilitative care providers.

In addition, Timberlake lobbied for two health care information technology entities: the Wisconsin Health Information Organization and the Wisconsin Statewide Health Information Network.

Evers called Timberlake his interim secretary but did not say how long he wanted her to hold that role or whether she could be given the job permanently.

When Timberlake leaves the post, she will not be able to immediately return to lobbying on the same issues. State law bars former government officials from appearing before the agencies where they used to work for a year.

Some Republican lawmakers complained in 2019 about Evers appointing Craig Thompson as transportation secretary because Thompson had lobbied for raising the gas tax. Thompson previously worked for the Transportation Development Association, a trade group that includes road builders, engineers and local governments.

In 2015, Republican Gov. Scott Walker came close to naming Bob Seitz, a lobbyist for a proposed iron mine, as his deputy natural resources secretary. He backed off of the appointment because of a federal law aimed at limiting conflicts of interest on environmental matters.

Walker instead gave Seitz a top job at the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.