"Upholding basic ethical standards for our government should not be a partisan issue," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

"Upholding basic ethical standards for our government should not be a partisan issue," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

White House Declines to Help GAO Review Appointee Ethics Disclosures

Watchdog review of Interior, HHS and Small Business Administration recommends legislation to strengthen transparency.

Citing little help from the White House, a congressional watchdog on Friday criticized a shortage of public information about precisely who is serving in presidentially appointed positions and their possible financial conflicts.

The Government Accountability Office, after examining ethics office records at the Interior Department, the Health and Human Services Department and the Small Business Administration, said in a report that, “There is no single source of publicly available, comprehensive, and timely data on appointees.”

The information on training in ethics disclosures too often is spotty, auditors added, recommending action by agency heads “who have a special responsibility to exercise leadership in ethics,” as well as improvements in documentation on appointee pledges in ethics offices at Interior and SBA.

“Some data are available on political appointees serving in the Executive Branch but the data have limitations that impede their usefulness,” auditors found. “To facilitate independent review and analysis related to political appointees, members of the public need access to information on who is serving in political appointee positions. Otherwise, they are limited in their ability to discern whether appointees are performing their duties free of conflict,” while making congressional oversight more difficult, GAO added.

Two agencies, the Office of Personnel Management and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, GAO said, are positioned to report these data, “but there are some benefits and drawbacks of each agency’s current capacity.”

Moments after the report’s release, two Democratic senators and a House oversight chairman released statements underlining the widely reported ethics controversies over business holdings of now-departed Secretary Ryan Zinke, and noting that the White House ethics disclosure policies haven’t been examined by GAO since 2003.

“Strong ethics programs are necessary to ensure that we can trust our government,” said Sen. Gary Peters, ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Americans have a right to know that public servants are acting in the people’s best interests and that their decisions are free from personal conflicts of interest.”

“For the past two years, the American people have watched the Trump Administration blatantly disregard the ethical norms that have guided previous administrations, regardless of party,” added Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. “Regrettably, today’s GAO report shows more of the same. Upholding basic ethical standards for our government should not be a partisan issue; it's good, common-sense policy that is necessary for a healthy democracy.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, said he is “also outraged at the systematic obstruction by the White House of the work of the nonpartisan GAO.”

In their joint release, the Democrats mentioned that Comptroller General Gene Dodaro as recently as March  6 told the House Oversight panel that GAO had requested information from the White House Counsel’s Office for “five different audit engagements” since President Trump took office and did not receive information in any of them. (GAO did interview presidential personnel staff from previous administrations.)

The White House did not respond to Government Executive’s queries.

Specifically, GAO documented that nine appointees at Interior and one at HHS had missed deadlines for signing ethics pledges, and two from SBA and one from Interior filed new reports late. SBA did establish new tracking procedures, the report said, during GAO’s review last month.

“Interior's ethics program has human capital and workforce continuity challenges,” the report said, noting that four out of 14 full-time positions are vacant. “Interior officials attributed the vacancies to a recent transformation of the ethics program and prioritizing the staffing at individual bureaus such as the National Park Service.”

GAO recommended that Congress consider legislation to require collection and publication of information on appointees. It also recommended that SBA document completion of ethics training and that Interior conduct more strategic planning for its ethics workforce and document ethics program policies and procedures. SBA acknowledged receipt but did not comment on the recommendations; Interior managers agreed.