The Biden administration appointed a recent lobbyist for the Palestinian government to help oversee the distribution of $250 million in U.S. foreign aid to promote Middle East peace, a move that ethics experts say conflicts with President Biden's "revolving door" executive order.
George Salem, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, was appointed chairman of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Partnership for Peace Fund board this week. He will lead a 12-member board that will advise USAID on how to distribute foreign aid funding for "projects to strengthen people-to-people engagement between Palestinians and Israelis," according to the agency.
Salem's appointment comes just three months after he ended a six-year stint as a registered foreign agent for the Palestine Monetary Authority, the central banking arm of the Palestinian Authority, according to federal lobbying disclosure records. He previously served as a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The selection also comes one year after Biden signed an ethics executive order that is supposed to restrict appointees from participating in matters on which they lobbied within the past two years. But government watchdogs say the administration doesn't appear to be enforcing this two-year "cooling off" period, creating an environment that invites conflicts of interest.
"The new executive order opens the door to corruption by allowing individuals like Mr. Salem to leverage their previous relationships as foreign agents or lobbyists during their tenure on advisory boards like the [Partnership for Peace Fund], without the required two-year cooling off period they are supposed to adhere to before and after their tenure," said Tom Anderson, director of the Government Integrity Project at the National Legal and Policy Center.
Under the ethics rules—which the White House touted as the "most stringent ethical standards of any administration in history"—appointees are barred from participating in "any particular matter on which [they] lobbied, or engaged in registrable activity under [the Foreign Agent Registration Act], within the 2 years before the date of [their] appointment."
Appointees are also required to sign a legally binding agreement that states they will not "seek or accept employment with any executive agency with respect to which I lobbied, or engaged in registrable activity under [the Foreign Agent Registration Act], within the two years before the date of my appointment."
A spokesman for USAID defended the appointment, telling the Washington Free Beacon that Salem was "no longer registered for this work" and noting that members of the board should be expected to have ties to the region.
"The requirements for Board members, as laid out in the legislation for the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, require that all members 'shall have demonstrated regional expertise,'" said the spokesman. "Because of this requirement, we expect that many of the Board members will have had previous relationships in the region."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Salem did not respond to a request for comment.
The Palestine Monetary Authority is a government agency under the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank government controlled by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. Critics have accused the government of mishandling foreign aid in the past, including using it for "pay-for-slay" salaries to convicted terrorists and their families.
Salem first registered as a foreign agent for the Palestine Monetary Authority in 2015. He said he would "assist the Palestine Monetary Authority with compliance with anti-money laundering and economic sanctions laws and regulations, and to strengthen the relationship between the Palestine Monetary Authority and the U.S. Government and U.S. correspondent banks," according to Foreign Agent Registration Act records. At the time, he was also registered as a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Salem's fee for Palestine Monetary Authority work was listed as $7,500 per month in 2015 and $8,500 in 2016. The authority paid Salem around $93,000 in 2021 and $70,000 in 2020, according to the records.
Prior to the lobbying work, Salem gained notoriety as a lawyer for the Holy Land Foundation, a charity that was shut down by the U.S. government in 2001 for funding Hamas.
Salem defended the organization against a civil lawsuit brought by the family of a 17-year-old American who was killed by Hamas, in which he argued that "if this case were allowed to its logical conclusion, legitimate U.S.A. charities could be held liable for unrelated acts by individuals not connected to their charities." Salem withdrew as counsel in August 2002. The family of the victim was eventually awarded $156 million in the case.
Five of the Holy Land Foundation's leaders were later convicted in a separate criminal trial of funneling $12 million to Hamas. They were sentenced in 2009 to between 15 years and 65 years.