A communications industry lobbyist who has represented some of the nation's most powerful cable, Internet and telecommunications firms is drawing scrutiny for his role on President-elect Obama's transition team.
James Halpert, an attorney and registered lobbyist with DLA Piper, is advising on matters involving the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and intellectual property, according to many sources in the technology sector who are familiar with Obama's transition operations.
Critics are crying foul because they insist Halpert lobbied these issues just a few months ago, in violation of Obama's strict ethics guidelines, which state that parties joining the transition effort are prohibited from working in areas in which they focused as registered lobbyists in the last 12 months.
"When we saw his name pop up as the transition guy for IP, I mean, everybody nearly had a heart attack," an industry source said.
The flap over Halpert comes as corporate stakeholders and watchdogs jockey for position to influence decisions the new administration will make in the coming weeks and months that could profoundly affect their businesses and reverse eight years of largely deregulatory communications policies.
While the Obama team has released the names of its top transition advisers, several of whom have deep ties to communications firms and associations, hundreds more -- including Halpert -- have not been disclosed to the public.
"Everything we're doing is consistent with the principles that President-elect Obama laid out during the campaign," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. "We are operating under the farthest-reaching ethics policy in history."
A transition official described Halpert as a member of an advisory team handling only patents and trademarks. Halpert declined to comment.
Sources pointed to Halpert's activities on behalf of the little-known Internet Commerce Coalition, whose members include Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, eBay, Information Technology Association of America, Monster.com, U.S. Telecom Association and Verizon, as evidence of a conflict of interest.
The coalition, which one source described as run by Halpert, keeps a low profile, has no Web site and uses DLA Piper's address. In a March 18 letter signed by Halpert that was sent to Rachel Bae, director of intellectual property and innovation for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the coalition addressed provisions of the pending Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.
The group argued the act should "appreciably enhance the enforcement of existing intellectual property rights," rather than pursue substantive legal changes. The correspondence also sought to clarify that existing laws do not authorize "trademark owners to assert control over the secondary distribution of goods," including products sold abroad at lower prices.
Critics also cited public disclosures listing Halpert as one of several lobbyists on an intellectual property bill enacted in October, which sources said he lobbied the Senate Judiciary Committee up to a few months ago, and as a lobbyist earlier this year on a patent reform measure.
Public records covering the third quarter of 2008 indicate that Halpert ceased representing several clients, including Amazon and Comcast. Meanwhile, his biography on the DLA Piper Web site lists intellectual property as one of several specialty areas.
"It raises some concern here because Obama represents the candidate of change and [getting] away from the special interests," said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen. He explained that since lobbyists often work several issues, the ethics restrictions are cumbersome to implement.
While those rules are the strictest of any president, "my impression is that for the transition team, the vetting process is not very strict," Holman said.
Halpert is married to Karen Kornbluh, who served as Obama's policy director in his Senate office and is considered a potential candidate for FCC chairman.
Halpert is well-respected among allies and opponents for his talents and effectiveness, with views mixed as to whether he has breached any ethical boundaries.
"He's definitely worked on these issues and it seems like it would be a conflict that he's been assigned to this role," an industry source complained, while parties sympathetic to his policy stances were quick to defend him.
"He's just not a patent guy," said one of his supporters, insisting that any of his activity on intellectual property matters has been marginal.
"That's not his area of expertise," said a source about the subjects Halpert is focusing on for the transition, adding that his role is "perfectly acceptable according to the rules."
This article appears in the Nov. 22, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily.