Ethics Office Chief Asks House Panel to Allow Him to Testify Publicly

The government's ethics chief would like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (left) and Chairman Jason Chaffetz to hold a meeting open to the public. The government's ethics chief would like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (left) and Chairman Jason Chaffetz to hold a meeting open to the public. Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub has responded to a request that he meet privately for a transcribed hearing with the staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee with an alternative proposal: testifying in public.

Shaub’s Jan. 16 letter to Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, came as part of an ongoing clash about the ethics office’s criticisms of President-elect Donald Trump’s approach to avoiding conflicts of interest from his vast business holdings. Chaffetz has suggested that Shaub has politicized his office through tweets and public statements on Trump’s plans.

During staff-to-staff talks over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, Shaub wrote, the Oversight committee had changed its original request from a transcribed interview sometime this month to a private meeting on Jan. 23 with Chaffetz, ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and staff members. (Cummings has been demanding hearings on Trump’s potential conflicts.)

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Chaffetz’s staff informed Shaub that a meeting open to the public would not be acceptable, so Shaub wrote to ask that the committee reconsider. “Allowing the public to attend our meeting—or, at the very least, to view it through live broadcast or the attendance of the news media—would ensure transparency and educate the public about how OGE guards the executive branch against conflicts of interest,” Shaub wrote.

The ethics chief said his criticisms of Trump and his more positive evaluation of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s plans to remove conflicts “were intended to educate the public about the shortcomings of the president-elect’s current plan and made in the hopes of persuading him to make adjustments that will resolve his conflicts of interest.” Such education, he added, is a core function of his independent agency, which he noted has helped thousands of federal employees navigate ethics rules.

“Since the election,” Shaub said, “there has been significant public interest in OGE and government ethics issues. Our office has received an unprecedented volume of telephone calls, emails and letters from members of the public related to our executive branch ethics program.”

Shaub said he would be willing to attend a private meeting if Chaffetz insisted, but is “hopeful you will agree that a public meeting is preferable.”

Chaffetz’s staff did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Cummings has said he favors a public hearing, and his office has highlighted what it sees as coordination between Chaffetz and the Trump transition team.  As The New York Times reported on Jan. 13, “Mr. Chaffetz said that he had been in touch with the Trump team in recent days, speaking with Donald F. McGahn II, who will be Mr. Trump’s White House counsel, about Mr. Shaub and his series of public comments about Mr. Trump.”

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