WASHINGTON – The Florida law firm that employs President Joe Biden’s brother Frank ran a newspaper ad on Inauguration Day touting the brothers’ relationship and shared values, a move that is causing an ethics headache for the administration less than two weeks after Biden took office.
Press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking from the White House podium Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, addressed the subject broadly, without mentioning the ad in particular. “It is the White House’s policy that the president’s name should not be used in connection with any commercial activities” that would suggest or imply “his endorsement or support,” she said. The ad featuring Frank Biden arguably runs afoul of that edict.
Biden has promised to lead a highly ethical administration, which he has pitched as a contrast to his predecessor, and has adopted unusually strict rules for those serving in his administration, although they do not necessarily apply to family members.
The two-page “advertorial” ran on Jan. 20 in the South Florida-based Daily Business Review to promote the work of the Berman Law Group, which employs Frank Biden as a “non-attorney senior adviser.”
The ad features a smiling photo of Frank Biden and highlights his relationship with the president, stressing their shared values. It focuses on the Berman Law Group’s role in a class-action case against sugar cane growers and Frank Biden’s part in that litigation.
Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on whether the newspaper ad violates the White House policy.
The ad is fashioned to resemble a news story about the firm’s involvement in the sugar cane case, though it is clearly labeled “Advertorial Section.” It cites Frank Biden’s connection with the president multiple times, linking the law firm’s work with the values laid out in President Biden’s agenda.
In the second paragraph of a roughly 1,000-word advertisement, for example, the text says the Berman Law Group sued sugar cane growers “against the backdrop of incoming President Joseph Biden Jr.’s commitment to environmental and social justice, a value shared by his brother and Berman Law Group senior adviser, Frank Biden.”
Next, the ad notes that the Biden brothers are simpatico in issue areas where the firm is doing work, even suggesting that President Biden would be broadly supportive of the firm’s sugar cane litigation.
“The two Biden brothers have long held a commitment to pushing environmental issues to the forefront,” it says, noting that President Biden had vowed to rejoin the Paris climate accords and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Similarly, the lawsuit against Big Sugar is just another example of how the two brothers’ core environmental beliefs align,” the advertorial asserts.
Ethics watchdogs said the advertisement is problematic.
“The country, after an extremely trying time, has entrusted its future to Joe Biden,” said Norm Eisen, who was special assistant to former president Barack Obama for ethics and government reform. “So to have a family member, or a business associate of that family member, exploit the president’s name is understandably concerning to the president, to the White House and to the country.”
For-profit ventures by Biden’s family members drew criticism during the campaign, although the spotlight was mostly on his son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president. During that time, Joe Biden was a point man on Ukraine for the Obama administration.
Shortly after visiting China with his father via Air Force Two, Hunter Biden joined the board of a newly formed investment advisory firm whose partners included Chinese entities.
Friday’s questions involved Frank Biden, who is based in Florida and whose work email address was published twice in the advertisement. The existence of the ad was first reported by CNBC. The Washington Post obtained a copy.
Frank Biden did not respond to an email seeking comment. Nor did the firm’s founders, Teddy Berman and Russell Berman.
Francis Biden – Frank’s formal name – was hired by the Berman Law Group in July 2018, according to a news release from the firm at the time. The release, issued when his brother was no longer vice president and about nine months before he entered the presidential race, did not mention the familial connection.
Frank Biden’s biography on the law firm’s website does highlight his ties to the president and the president’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. According to the online bio, Biden “was involved in the election campaigns of his brother, Joe Biden, and nephew, Joseph R. Biden III, as an adviser and unpaid campaign coordinator over many years.”
Separately, Psaki also confirmed Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, that Valerie Biden, President Biden’s sister and longtime political adviser, will not hold a formal position or office in the White House. “Reports that there was an office in the West Wing were not accurate,” Psaki said.
The Bidens also have a fourth sibling, their brother James.
During the Trump administration, Democrats questioned the ethics of numerous acts by the president – who retained his business empire during his presidency – as well as by family members and various aides. Biden promised to provide a stark contrast with what many critics saw as the Trumps’ eagerness to use their government position to enrich themselves.
The Frank Biden ad is on a far smaller scale. But it does repeatedly cite the president of the United States in an effort to raise the profile of a business that employs a close relative.
And it is not subtle in making the connection. “For Biden it’s a question of judgement, not morals – a lesson his older brother, the president-elect Joseph Biden Jr., has ingrained in him,” the ad says.
“My brother is a model for how to go about doing this work,” Frank Biden is quoted as saying.
President Biden has issued a wide-ranging executive order imposing ethical restrictions on his administration’s appointees, but that policy does not speak to his family members. Shortly before the inauguration, a Biden official told The Post that the White House would adopt procedures to ensure that activities by family members would not create a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one.
That would include prohibiting Biden family members from working for or serving on the board of majority foreign-owned companies, the person said.
As private citizens, presidential siblings and family members are notoriously difficult to regulate, and presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton struggled to rein in their relatives.
“The question is: What do you do about it? Because you can’t control your brother,” said Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. “The brother can make an ad. Joe Biden can’t stop his brother from making an ad.”
What the White House can do, Painter said, is make it clear that it will not permit any special access to his brother’s law firm or its clients. He said the White House should create a blanket rule that lawyers from the Berman Law Group will get no meetings with Biden’s political appointees.
“The one thing they have done is to say the president’s name should not be used this way,” Painter said. “The more concrete directive is that if the president’s name is used this way, you then put into place prophylactic measures where the political appointees of the president are not accepting meetings or handling business of that law firm.”