March 15, 2018

Warren, Colleagues Call for Top DeVos Adviser's Recusal from Decisions on For-Profit Colleges Owned by Former Employer

Proposed Merger Requires Approval from Department of Education; Senators Press DeVos on Robert Eitel's Plans for Recusal

Text of letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) today sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos requesting information on whether her Senior Counselor Robert Eitel plans to recuse himself from matters related to the proposed merger of Ashford University and the University of the Rockies - two for-profit colleges owned by Eitel's former employer, Bridgepoint Education. 

On March 13, 2018, Bridgepoint Education announced that it would merge its two for-profit institutions, Ashford University and the University of the Rockies, and the combined institution (collectively known as Ashford University) will seek to convert into a nonprofit. Bridgepoint would continue to operate separately as an Online Program Management (OPM) company, with Ashford as its first client. The complicated process that Bridgepoint must go through to separate itself from Ashford University and the University of the Rockies, and the process that Ashford University and University of the Rockies must go through to merge, require a number of state and federal approvals-including by the Department of Education.

Prior to serving at the Department, Mr. Eitel worked as the Vice President of Regulatory Legal Services at Bridgepoint. From February 13, 2017 to April 5, 2017, Mr. Eitel was a joint employee of the Department and Bridgepoint. He was reportedly on an "unpaid leave of absence" from Bridgepoint during this nine-week period before officially resigning from the for-profit college company. Mr. Eitel joined the staff of the Department of Education as a Special Assistant to the Secretary on February 13, 2017. Mr. Eitel was later promoted to the position of Senior Counselor to the Secretary and "charged with advising the Secretary on the implications of proposed, new, or revised policies, regulations, and legislative proposals and assessing their potential impact on the Department's mission."

"As a federal employee, Mr. Eitel is governed by ethics laws, rules, and regulations designed to prevent conflicts of interests and prohibit the misuse of government resources for private gain," wrote the senators. "It appears clear that Mr. Eitel must recuse himself from any and all matters related to the separation from Bridgeport and the proposed merger of Ashford University and the University of the Rockies."

Mr. Eitel is governed by the Standard of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch, which make clear that federal employees must "endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or (executive branch) ethical standards." He is also bound by Executive Order 13770, which outlines an "ethics pledge" that executive branch employees must adhere to. Paragraph six of the ethics pledge states that federal appointees "will not for a period of 2 years from the date of...appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to (a) former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts."

The senators urged Secretary DeVos to clarify that Mr. Eitel will be recusing himself from this matter by no later than April 5, 2018.

Senator Warren has been raising concerns about Robert Eitel's hiring since March 2017. In May 2017, Senators Warren and Murray raised concerns about potential ethics violations by Mr. Eitel. In August 2017, Senator Warren asked DeVos whether Mr. Eitel violated federal conflict-of-interest law by working on the Education Department's Borrower Defense to Repayment rule while simultaneously employed by the Department and by Bridgepoint Education, Inc. 

Senator Warren's oversight effort, DeVos Watch, has been tracking the series of steps taken by Secretary DeVos and the Department that violate conflicts of interest and undermine protections for students and taxpayers.