The normally placid website of the Office of Government Ethics went down Thursday afternoon following a storm of queries in the wake of White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s controversial shopping advice to the public earlier in the day.
Conway made the statements on Fox News after she was asked about President Trump’s tweet blasting the Nordstrom department store chain as “unfair” for discontinuing his daughter Ivanka’s clothing and accessory line (a move the Seattle-based company said was made for business reasons, not as a boycott of Trump).
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” Conway said on camera from the White House press room in the early morning. “I’m going to just give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody. You can find it online.”
Federal law explicitly states that an “employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
At the Office of Government Ethics, queries about the propriety of Conway’s comments came thick and fast:
1/OGE’s website, phone system and email system are receiving an extraordinary volume of contacts from citizens about recent events.— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) February 9, 2017
@OfficeGovEthics who has investigative and enforcement authority?— Daniel Lu (@ludaniel) February 9, 2017
When OGE learns of potential employee violations it contacts the agency to provide guidance, and then asks the agency to inform OGE of any actions taken. But the office itself does not conduct investigations. “Congress, GAO, the FBI, Inspectors General, and the Office of Special Counsel have the authority to conduct investigations,” the office informed people via Twitter.
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At his early afternoon White House press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Conway had been counseled, but he did not elaborate.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called Conway’s remarks “a textbook violation of government ethics laws” and wrote to panel Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, asking for disciplinary action.
“Since the committee has direct jurisdiction over the ethics laws applicable to White House employees, I request that the committee make an official referral of this matter to the Office of Government Ethics and request that it report back to the committee as soon as possible with its findings,” he said.
The OGE, Cummings stressed, has authority to review potential violations and recommend actions such as pay loss or dismissal.
For his part, Chaffetz told NBC news, “That was wrong, wrong, wrong. It is wholly unacceptable—no ifs, ands or buts about it,” regarding Conway’s comments.
Update: Chaffetz and Cummings sent OGE a strongly worded letter Thursday afternoon noting that "Conway's statements clearly violate the ethical principles for federal employees and are unacceptable." The lawmakers noted the "additional challenge, which is that the president, as the ultimate disciplinary authority for White House employees, has an inherent conflict of interest since Conway's statements relate to his daughter's private business." For that reason, the lawmakers requested that OGE exercise its authority to "recommend to the head of the officer's or employee's agency that appropriate disciplinary action (such as reprimand, suspension, demotion or dismissal) be brought against the officer or employee."