Biden Officials to Attend ‘Ethics Summit’ With TikTok Exec Involved In Surveillance of American Journalists

Assistant Commerce Secretary Matthew Axelrod and TikTok exec Catherine Razzano.
April 14, 2023

Two Biden administration officials will attend an "ethics summit" next week with a TikTok executive who reportedly took part in the social media company’s efforts to hunt down leaks about its ties to China.

The Biden administration's assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Commerce Department, Matthew Axelrod, the and Glenn Leon, the chief of the Justice Department’s fraud section, will speak at the Ethisphere Global Ethics Summit in Atlanta—alongside TikTok's head of global legal compliance, Catherine Razzano.

Razzano was involved in an internal investigation led by TikTok parent ByteDance to root out leaks of internal information about the company, according to Forbes. The investigation, known as Project Raven, ultimately led to surveillance of at least two American journalists. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating the Chinese companies over the matter.

House Republicans are crying foul over Axelrod’s participation in the summit. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R., Wash.), the chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said in a letter to Axelrod on Friday he has "an ethical responsibility" to use the ethics forum to raise awareness about TikTok’s "threats to our national security and privacy."

The Biden officials are attending the summit amid TikTok’s aggressive lobbying campaign to beat back a ban on the app in the United States. Support has grown for a ban because of concerns that the Chinese government could surveil Americans through the app, and use it to spread pro-Beijing propaganda.

TikTok has hired a cavalry of lobbyists and PR firms, including the Democratic consulting firm SKDK, to fight the ban. There are some indications that the onslaught is working, as the Washington Free Beacon reported. A growing number of Democrats have accused Republicans of racism for promoting the TikTok ban. Others in the party oppose a ban because of TikTok’s popularity with young and liberal voters.

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, whose agency will oversee any regulation of TikTok, has expressed reservations about banning the app because it would hurt the Democratic party by alienating TikTok’s user base, which skews young and liberal.

"The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever," Raimondo said last month.

TikTok has bolstered its image through partnerships with a variety of trade groups and advocacy groups, such as the National PTA and Ad Council. It does the same through Ethisphere Institute, which touts its ethics summit as "a place for companies and delegates to learn, develop and share ideas that elevate our field and lead to greater business integrity."

Etisphere oversees the Business Ethics Leadership Alliance, which counts TikTok as a member. Razzano serves on the alliance’s executive steering committee.

Razzano is perhaps a peculiar choice to discuss business ethics. According to Forbes, she had knowledge of ByteDance and TikTok’s efforts to find a source behind leaks about the company’s links to China. ByteDance employees ultimately obtained user data on at least two journalists, including a Forbes reporter who covers TikTok.

A ByteDance spokesperson told Forbes that Razzano was not aware of the surveillance of journalists until October, but was aware of Project Raven at its inception. The Justice Department is investigating ByteDance over the surveillance, according to reports.

The Justice Department did not respond to questions about whether Leon, the department official attending the ethics conference, is involved in the ByteDance probe. The Commerce Department did not respond to inquiries about Axelrod’s involvement in matters related to TikTok.