Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jan 2018
Source: Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)
Copyright: 2018 The Times-Picayune


In May 2016, Taylor Weyeneth was an undergraduate at St. John's
University in New York, a legal studies student and fraternity member
who organized a golf tournament and other events to raise money for
veterans and their families.

Less than a year later, at 23, Weyeneth, was a political appointee and
rising star at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White
House office responsible for coordinating the federal government's
multibillion dollar anti-drug initiatives and supporting President
Donald Trump's efforts to curb the opioid epidemic. Weyeneth would
soon become deputy chief of staff.

Weyeneth's brief biography offers few clues that he would so quickly
assume a leading role in the drug policy office, a job recently
occupied by a lawyer and a veteran government official. His only
professional experience after college and before becoming an appointee
was working on Trump's presidential campaign.

Weyeneth's ascent from a low-level post to deputy chief of staff is
due in large part to staff turnover and vacancies. The story of his
appointment and remarkable rise provides insight into the Trump
administration's political appointments and the troubled state of the
drug policy office.

Trump has pledged to marshal federal government talent and resources
to address the opioid crisis, but nearly a year after his
inauguration, the drug policy office, known as ONDCP, lacks a
permanent director. At least seven of his administration's appointees
have departed, office spokesman William Eason said. Among them was the
general counsel and acting chief of staff, some of whose duties were
assumed by Weyeneth, according to a memo obtained by The Washington

"ONDCP leadership recognizes that we have lost a few talented staff
members and that the organization would benefit from an infusion of
new expert staff," said the Jan. 3 memo from acting director Richard
Baum, a civil servant. "The functions of the Chief of Staff will be
picked up by me and the Deputy Chief of Staff."

Weyeneth, 24, did not respond to requests for an interview.

After being contacted by The Post about Weyeneth's qualifications, and
about inconsistencies on his resumes, an administration official said
Weyeneth will return to the position he initially held in the agency,
as a White House liaison for ONDCP, a job that typically involves
working with outside interest groups. The official, who agreed to
speak only on the condition of anonymity, said that Weyeneth has been
primarily performing administrative work, rather than making policy
decisions, and that he had "assumed additional duties and an
additional title following staff openings."

The office hired Weyeneth in March "after seeing his passion and
commitment on the issue of opioids and drug addiction," the official
said. The official and Weyeneth's mother both said Weyeneth was moved
by the death of a relative several years ago from a heroin overdose.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy was started by Congress in
1988 with passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Part of the White House
executive office, the ONDCP director, often referred to as the "drug
czar," is supposed to be the president's main adviser on issues
relating to illicit drugs, including manufacturing, smuggling and addiction.

In addition to its responsibilities for coordinating drug programs at
other federal agencies, ONDCP is supposed to produce the National Drug
Control Strategy, an annual blueprint for drug policy. The office also
administers grants to law enforcement and drug-free community programs.

For the budget year that began in October, the White House budget plan
called for $18.4 million in spending for 65 employees at ONDCP,
excluding people detailed from the military and other areas of
government, and program spending of $350 million.

Last year the Office of Management and Budget proposed cuts that would
have effectively eliminated the ONDCP for the fiscal year that began
in October. The White House abandoned the plan after objections from a
bipartisan group of senators.

In October, Trump's nominee to lead the office, Rep. Tom Marino,R-Pa.,
withdrew from consideration after a joint investigation by The Post
and "60 Minutes" found he had sponsored legislation favoring opioid
makers and curbing the ability of the Drug Enforcement Administration
to investigate abuses.

Current and former ONDCP officials who have served under Democratic
and Republican presidents said in interviews that the turmoil,
including the elevation of Weyeneth, hinders efforts to rally the
government at a time when the nation is going through the worst opioid
crisis in its history.

"It sends a terrible message," said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle
police chief who ran the office during the Obama administration and is
a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. "It's a
message that we're not taking this drug issue seriously."

John Walters, the office's director in the administration of George W.
Bush, declined through a spokeswoman to comment.

The circumstances of Weyeneth's appointment and rapid rise at ONDCP
have not been reported previously.

Two resumes he submitted to the government were obtained through open
records requests by American Bridge 21st Century and another
Democratic-leaning organization, which shared them in response to
inquiries. The White House released a third resume to The Post.

When he was in high school, Weyeneth was "Director of Production" for
Nature's Chemistry, a family firm in Skaneateles, New York, that
specialized in processing chia seeds and other health products. One
resume said he served in that job from 2008 to 2013, and two others
indicate he stopped working there in September 2011.

In the summer and fall of 2011, the firm was secretly processing
illegal steroids from China as part of a conspiracy involving people
from Virginia, California and elsewhere in the United States and one
person in China, federal court records show. Weyeneth's stepfather,
Matthew Greacen, pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge last
year and received two years probation and a fine.

Weyeneth was not charged in the investigation, known as Operation
Grasshopper. His mother, Kim Weyeneth, said in an interview that
neither she nor her son knew about the steroid production and that he
provided information to help the federal prosecutors.

"We didn't know anything that was going on," Kim Weyeneth said, adding
that she and Taylor were excluded by Greacen from a part of the
facility where the steroids were kept. "It's a very humongous plant."

Kim Weyeneth said that she and Taylor were becoming estranged from
Greacen and that she is now seeking a divorce.

Greacen's attorney, Robert Austin, said he relayed interview requests
from The Post but Greacen did not respond. In court last year, Greacen
said he did not understand the gravity of the scheme at the time but
had come to appreciate that it was wrong, according to a court transcript.

The actor Alec Baldwin, a cousin of Greacen's, wrote a letter to a
judge asking for leniency. Baldwin said in an interview that Greacen
helped raise Taylor Weyeneth. He said he was surprised Weyeneth went
into politics because, as far as he could tell from family gatherings,
there wasn't "a single molecule of political DNA" in the household.

Weyeneth attended St. John's University in Queens, according to his
resumes. He joined a fraternity, worked part time in various jobs and
volunteered at the Passionist Monastery in Queens. He enrolled in a
master's program at Fordham University in the Bronx.

All three resumes say "MA Political Science" at Fordham's Center for
Electoral Politics and Democracy. The first resume he submitted to the
government provides no dates for his graduate studies, and the other
two say he did his course work from 2016 to June 2017.

Fordham University spokesman Bob Howe told The Post that "a student
named Taylor Weyeneth is enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and
Sciences at Fordham, in a Master's program for electoral and campaign
management. He has not completed his degree yet."

In the first resume, Weyeneth said he volunteered for more than 275
hours at the monastery between 2012 and 2016. The second resume he
submitted to the government said it was more than 150 hours. The
resume provided by the White House does not mention volunteer work at
the monastery.

Two monastery rectors, one current and one former, contacted by The
Post did not dispute that Weyeneth volunteered there but said they had
no memory of him and no paperwork related to his volunteer work.

The administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity
acknowledged that the first resume contained errors. He said in later
resumes Weyeneth included dates referring to a master's degree as
projections of when he expected to receive it.

After graduating from St. John's in May 2016, Weyeneth worked in a
number of jobs for Trump's presidential campaign, including
coordinating voter services and arranging travel and temporary housing
for senior campaign officials. He also worked directly with Rich
Dearborn, then director of Trump's transition team, on "special
projects," according to one of his resumes.

A spokesman said Dearborn was not available for comment.

On Jan. 23, 2017, Weyeneth joined the administration as an assistant
at the Treasury Department. He was a "General Schedule 11" employee,
according to data maintained by ProPublica. In the Washington area, a
federal worker at that level last year generally earned between
$66,510 and $86,459, according to government data.

He moved to ONDCP in March, his resumes show, and was named deputy
chief of staff in July, according to his LinkedIn page.

Under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the office has
attracted some prominent law enforcement, public health and military
experts. Some recent deputy chiefs of staff had years of experience
working in government or public policy before being appointed.

Among them was Regina LaBelle, a lawyer who served as deputy chief of
staff, senior policy adviser and chief of staff at ONDCP during the
Obama administration. She had previously served a multiyear stint as
legal counsel to the Seattle mayor and taught public policy and
legislative ethics at Seattle University.

LaBelle said the office must run well because nowhere else in
government do law enforcement and public health officials come
together to develop ways to confront drug-related problems. With the
opioid crisis, the office should be vital, she said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt