White House Asks Justice for Ruling on Disclosing Ethics Waivers

Ethics office director Walter Shaub walks on Capitol Hill in January. Ethics office director Walter Shaub walks on Capitol Hill in January. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The White House has asked the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel for an opinion on whether it must comply with demands from the governmentwide ethics office for an inventory of ethics waivers that President Trump’s team has granted to former lobbyists.

The dispute—part of an ongoing squabble with the Office of Government Ethics over compliance with disclosure and conflict of interest rules—stems from a letter White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney sent to ethics office director Walter Shaub asking him to cease his request for a list of ethics waivers granted due to unresolved legal questions.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., asked Mulvaney about his letter during a House Budget Committee hearing on the president’s fiscal 2018 spending blueprint. She called his letter to Shaub an effort to “shut down an investigation of Trump and why there are so many billionaires working in his administration.”

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The budget director replied that his letter to OGE was prompted by requests that “were inappropriately broad and violative of statute, so I did what I think is the exact right thing to do when there’s a dispute between two pieces of the executive branch -- we referred the matter to the Justice Department and Office of Legal Counsel, which I think is what the statute says we’re supposed to do.”

Shaub had replied to Mulvaney Monday, as first reported by The New York Times, saying his office “declines your request to suspend its ethics inquiry and reiterates its expectation that agencies will fully comply with its directive.” The ethics chief sent copies of the reply to every designated federal agency ethics officer, six lawmakers who oversee government operations and all agency general counsels and inspectors general. “Public confidence in the integrity of government decision-making demands no less,” Shaub’s response stated.  

The 10-page reply reviewed OGE’s “plenary authority” going back to the 1978 Ethics in Government Act to request all information and records the director deems necessary for a review all from the executive branch, records and evidence “which obviate any need” to go to the Justice Department’s career legal counsel.  OGE, Shaub added, expects the White House to comply by June. 1.

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