Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is one of the most politically corrupt countries in Europe, and it has proven to be a challenging laboratory for Eisen’s knowledge. (Prior to joining the Obama Administration, he helped found Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal answer to right-wing legal watchdog groups like Judicial Watch, which spent the 1990s hounding the Clinton Administration with lawsuits.) “Doing [private] business in the Czech Republic is very similar to doing business in the U.S.,” says Weston Stacy, the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic. “But then if you’re talking about public procurement, doing business with the state is still a very non-transparent process.”
Early in his term, Eisen hosted a workshop on whistleblowing, inviting members of non-governmental organizations as well as representatives from the state, and he has followed that up with a series of seminars, bringing together anti-corruption experts from around the world to meet with Czech politicians and anti-corruption activists. “The Czechs have made confronting corruption a priority,” Eisen says. In November, Eisen hosted the World Forum on Governance, co-chaired by the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution, which brought together about 100 representatives from around the world in the fields of finance, transparency, and anti-corruption to discuss best practices.
Transparency has proven crucial with one public tender in particular: the completion of the Temelín Nuclear Power Plant Station, a contract worth some $30 billion. The Czech government is entertaining bids from the United States (Westinghouse), France (Areva), and Russia (a state-owned conglomerate called Atomstroyexport), and the competition is widely viewed as a battle between those who want to keep the country oriented toward the West and those, like President Klaus, who are looking east toward Moscow. While French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian Prime Minister Dmtiri Medvedev have aggressively lobbied Prague, the job of representing Westinghouse has been left to Eisen. “Before, what you saw was a lot of lobbying by the Russians and some degree of lobbying by the French but almost a complete absence of lobbying by Westinghouse or the U.S. government on behalf of Westinghouse,” Stacey told me. “Since Ambassador Eisen’s arrival, the U.S. part of the bid has been substantially improved.”
The first member of his immediate family to attend high school, never mind university, Eisen was raised in southern California. After graduating from Brown, he worked for the regional office of the ADL before heading east for law school at Harvard. His father, who left Poland in 1929 and who passed away when Eisen was a teenager, ran a hamburger stand in Los Angeles and struggled to make a living. It was a very typical first-generation immigrant story; he has often said that his parents worked like the “Israelites in Egypt.”
Eisen shares that work ethic. Yes, he attends galas and cocktail parties, enjoying the role of an American emissary in an enchanting European capital, but he also keeps a frenetic schedule of public appearances, meetings with government officials, and has started his own blog on the embassy’s website and for leading Czech newspaper DNES. (He says the president reads it.) Last year, he visited the Czech contingent of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, for instance, and he’s taken a keen interest combating extremism, as demonstrated by his involvement in the Bátora affair. David Ondracka, the head of Transparency International’s office in Prague, says that Eisen is “the most visible figure among the diplomatic corps.”
Up until last month, however, it was unclear if Eisen would return to the job. In the fall of 2010, soon after Obama announced his choice of Eisen to be ambassador, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa placed a “hold” on the nomination. Grassley’s opposition stemmed not from any lack of qualification on Eisen’s part or his policy views, but rather his role, when serving as White House ethics watchdog, in the firing of Gerald Walpin, for his role overseeing volunteer programs like AmeriCorps. Grassley alleged that the White House and, by extension, Eisen, attempted to obscure their political motivations for firing Walpin, who had initiated an investigation of Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, an Obama ally, over accusations that he misused federal funds while heading a California charter school.
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