Ethics agency to review waivers for Trump appointees

By Bill Allison

Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON —— The federal ethics agency is reviewing every waiver of conflict-of-interest rules that President Donald Trump’s appointees have received.

A memorandum from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics seeks documentation of waivers granted to appointees ordinarily required to recuse themselves from matters in which they or family members have a financial interest.

Issued by the agency’s director, Walter Shaub, it specifies that all agencies and appointees, “including White House officials,” must comply with the notice, which covers appointees in the administrations of Trump and Barack Obama.

Trump issued an ethics order in January, days after being inaugurated, requiring his appointees to recuse themselves for two years from matters involving former employers and clients. However, the White House and federal agencies can suspend that requirement for various reasons, including in cases where having an official’s expertise in a matter outweighs the potential for a conflict of interest. Such waivers aren’t required to be disclosed under federal law.

Seven Democratic senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, wrote to Trump requesting that he make such waivers public after media accounts of former lobbyists and other officials in his administration receiving secret waivers.

In the April 20 letter, the Democrats wrote that Obama made such documents publicly available. “You have not followed this precedent,” the letter said.

The senators cited a waiver granted to Marcus Peacock, who briefly worked in Trump’s Office of Management and Budget before leaving to join Business Roundtable, a conservative-leaning group of chief executive officers. The lobbying group said the administration had granted Peacock a waiver of the five-year ban on former officials engaging in lobbying, trimming it to six months in his case.

The ethics agency and the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Ethics in Government Act, the 1978 law that created the agency, gives it the power to conduct the review. Under the measure, agencies are required to provide the agency with “all information, reports, and records” that its director determines are necessary to perform his duties. The agency set a June 1 deadline to receive the documents. The review will include waivers granted to officials during the last months of the Obama administration and the first months of Trump’s.

The White House has previously indicated it didn’t believe the agency’s authority extended to its appointees. In a Feb. 28 letter to Shaub indicating that senior counselor Kellyanne Conway would not be disciplined for promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line in an appearance on Fox News Channel in February, White House deputy counsel Stefan Passantino said that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.”

In a response, Shaub wrote, “The assertion is incorrect, and the letter cites no legal basis for it.”