POLITICS
12/08/2014 05:11 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Obama Nominee Antonio Weiss Takes More Hits Over Qualifications For Treasury Post

WASHINGTON -- Progressive lawmakers and activists have been raising concerns for weeks over President Barack Obama's choice of Antonio Weiss for a top Treasury Department post. But now prominent financial industry insiders are speaking out as well, saying they don't think he's a good fit.

Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, says Weiss has "no known relevant qualifications or experience" to become the next Under Secretary for Domestic Finance. The job requires, among other things, overseeing consumer protection and domestic regulatory functions at Treasury.

As the global head of investment banking at financial giant Lazard, Weiss is clearly experienced "in advising companies how to buy other companies, particularly across international borders," Johnson wrote in a weekend blog post. But, he continued, those tasks are "completely unrelated to the central task of this position: running responsible federal government finances."

"It's hard to think of any senior fiscal official from a serious country with qualifications as weak as those of Mr. Weiss," Johnson added.

Sheila Bair, a former Assistant Treasury Secretary for Financial Markets and the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, also took issue with Obama's choice of Weiss. She raised concerns about picking another bank watchdog straight from Wall Street.

"As a former regulator who served in both the Bush and Obama Administration, I would agree that Wall Street perspectives too heavily dominate internal policy discussions and that a greater range of viewpoints is needed," she wrote in a blog post. "Why can't we have a consumer advocate as Under Secretary for Domestic Finance?"

Bair noted that Weiss' decision to move from the private sector into a government job isn't necessarily driven by nobility: He gets a $20 million payout from Lazard if he's confirmed for the Treasury job, something that wouldn't happen if he left for another firm.

"Only in the Wonderland of Wall Street logic could one argue that this looks like anything other than a bribe," she said. "We want people entering public service because they want to serve the public. Frankly, if they need a $20 million incentive, I'd rather they stay away."

Johnson's and Bair's critiques echo the arguments Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been making for weeks about Weiss being the wrong person for the Treasury job. She has said Weiss simply isn't qualified to oversee the implementation of Wall Street reforms put in place by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, and has noted that his firm specializes in politically toxic "corporate inversions," which involve U.S. companies relocating their headquarters to another country to avoid U.S. taxes. Obama himself has denounced such tactics as anti-American.

A Treasury Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest defended Weiss on Monday as "highly qualified" and said his "deep expertise" in financial markets and economic issues makes him a good fit for the Treasury post. He also dismissed the idea that it's inappropriate for Weiss to accept $20 million from Lazard if he takes the job.

"Before any nominee takes a position in government, they have to go through a review by the Office of Government Ethics," Earnest said in his daily briefing. "If they have concerns about the ethics of the compensation arrangement ... I'm sure they'll make them known ... As far as I know, they haven't."

Weiss has been meeting with senators to win their support for his confirmation since Obama nominated him last month. He's waiting for his hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, which won't likely take place until next year. Democrats on the committee have signaled they won't weigh in on Weiss' nomination until then.

In the meantime, progressive groups are rallying behind Warren to try to sink the nomination. CREDO, a progressive activist group, has collected signatures from more than 115,000 people urging the Senate to reject Weiss. On Monday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee sent an email to its 1 million supporters urging them to contact their senators and tell them to vote no:

President Obama nominated Wall Street investment banker Antonio Weiss to a top position at the U.S. Treasury.

This is a big mistake.

Antonio Weiss made millions by helping American companies like Burger King move their headquarters overseas to escape taxes. This cost us money that could be used to create jobs.

Even worse, his investment bank has said it will pay him over $20 million if he takes this job at Treasury. What are they expecting in return?

Not all progressives are staunchly opposed to Weiss. Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, says he has mixed feelings.

"We really don't need to hire foxes to guard the henhouse," Bernstein wrote late last week. "But here too, it’s useful to have Treasury officials with market experience in the mix."

"I'm sure Sen. Warren will use her position in the Senate to grill Mr. Weiss on his regulatory views," he added. "As she should."

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