Ethics office continues pas-de-deux with president’s attorneys as lawmakers pounce.
Conflict-of-interest controversies continued to swirl around the Trump White House as the Office of Government Ethics rejected a Trump attorney proposal for financial disclosure and Democratic lawmakers demanded clarifications of appointee ethics waivers and Trump hotel profits.
Trump’s private attorney Sheri Dillon, according to a story broken Friday by the Associated Press, in late April had proposed in a face-to-face conversation with ethics office Director Walter Shaub that Trump withhold his signature on initial versions of his voluntary financial disclosure form now under preparation. The signature certifying that the information is true wouldn’t come during the early consultation process with OGE.
“Consultation seems to be especially advisable because the president’s disclosure will include an atypically large number of investments and entities and because the president’s affairs have been totally restructured since his prior [2016 campaign] filing,” wrote Dillon, a partner in the Washington office of Morgan Lewis, in a subsequent letter emphasizing that this first disclosure is voluntary. “Consequently, this filing will be a template for future required filings.”
On May 10, Shaub wrote back saying, “OGE will provide this assistance on the condition that the president is committed to certifying that the contents of his report are true, complete and correct. I agreed with your analysis that he is not legally required to file, but I indicated that OGE would be unwilling to certify a report that failed to meet the requirements generally applicable to public financial disclosure in the executive branch.” The ethics office will offer advice, Shaub continued, only if all parties agree that he will certify his report.
Though AP obtained the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act, the Shaub letter has since been posted on the OGE website.
Separately, on Monday, eight House Democrats on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote to Shaub urging him to continue his earlier quest for the White House to release copies of all the waivers to conflict-of-interest rules that it has granted to presidential appointees.
“It is critical that you and your office make transparent how the individuals serving in the Trump administration are complying, or failing to comply, with President Trump’s executive order and other ethics requirements,” the members wrote. “Your role is particularly important because the White House itself is keeping this information secret.”
Led by ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the Democrats noted a New York Times report that the White House has declined to identify former lobbyists who have been given waivers to work in federal agencies. Also reported on Monday was a letter from White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to Shaub asking him to “stay the data call” for reports on ethics waivers granted because of unresolved legal questions.
The House Democrats also listed a series of lawmaker letters the White House has declined to answer.
Separately, Trump’s unusual arrangement to continue ownership of the federally owned building now housing the Trump International Hotel in Washington drew a blast on Monday from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Reacting to an earlier Reuters report that public pension funds are sending money to investment groups that finance Trump’s hotels, Murray, who serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wrote Shaub saying, “Trump may be profiting from the retirement plans of millions of our nation’s public servants. This looks like exactly the type of monetary flow prohibited by the Constitution.”
At a Jan. 11 news conference, Trump had said he would forward to the U.S. Treasury any profits from foreign government guests at his Washington hotel. Critics have filed lawsuits charging that Trump’s continued ownership of the hotel violates the Emoluments Clause.
Trump “needs to turn over all revenues, not just profits, to the government,” Richard Painter, who was a White House ethics counselor under President George W. Bush, told Government Executive. “He really shouldn’t own the hotel.”
Painter also expressed puzzlement as to why the Trump White House won’t list its ethics waivers for the Office of Government Ethics to review. “What’s the disadvantage, what’s the policy reason for not disclosing waivers?” he asked. “It’s not classified, and OGE gives guidance on those very rules on giving waivers and works with agency ethics officers. They ought to know what’s going on.”
On the issue of Trump’s original plan to avoid signing his initial financial disclosure, Painter added, “I’ve never heard of this. It’s a draft of a financial disclosure, which they show to OGE, then it goes back to the White House, which fixes it and the president signs it.” To file it unsigned “is like submitting an unsigned tax return,” he said. “He’s avoiding having to certify that it’s true.”
But a different view was offered by Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, an advocacy and research group. “While we prefer the president to lean forward on these issues of transparency, this is an example where any good lawyer would probably tell their client not to sign something they don’t have to sign. If I were someone’s lawyer, I’d probably be telling them that. It’s not evidence of any wrongdoing.”
A White House spokesman referred queries to attorney Sheri Dillon, who did not respond by publication time.