(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)
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 Post.
“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 résumés, 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 résumés 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 résumé 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 résumé 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 résumés. 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 résumés say “MA Political Science” at Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy. The first résumé 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 résumé, Weyeneth said he volunteered for more than 275 hours at the monastery between 2012 and 2016. The second résumé he submitted to the government said it was more than 150 hours. The résumé 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 résumé contained errors. He said in later résumés 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 résumés.
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 résumés 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.
“It requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, and that kind of approach can only be coordinated through the Office of National Drug Control Policy,” she said.