OGE says it has yet to receive financial disclosures for nominees already scheduled for hearings.
The Office of Government Ethics expressed serious concerns with the pace of the Senate’s confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet, saying it is risky and unprecedented for the chamber to move forward before the nominees complete the ethics review process.
In a letter in response to an inquiry from Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., OGE Director Walter Shaub called the announced hearing schedule “of great concern.” He said the agency has yet to complete their certifications of the nominees’ financial disclosure reports, putting at risk OGE’s ability to guarantee the candidates have disclosed all of their assets and fully resolved all conflicts of interest.
“This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews,” Shaub said. “More significantly, it has left some nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings. I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.”
Shaub added certain provisions of federal statute—including a requirement that nominees “make current” their assets to the day of the hearing and another that the OGE director send a report on each nominee to the relevant committee prior to the hearing—should prevent the Senate from moving forward with the hearings until the process is complete. The Senate will hold hearings for seven nominees this week, starting with Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Homeland Security Department Secretary-designate John Kelly on Tuesday.
In his letter, Shaub called the financial disclosure process “complex” and “labor intensive,” noting it typically takes weeks, not days, to complete. It involves creating a written ethics agreement to resolve all identified conflicts and coordination between both OGE and agency ethics officials. Shaub said the Trump transition team’s failure to consult with OGE prior to announcing nominees further complicated the process.
OGE and agency officials throughout government are “working diligently” and remain committed to completing the ethics work on each nominee as quickly as possible,” Shaub said, but it has yet to receive initial draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings. While he pledged to move forward in a timely fashion, he vowed not to allow any schedules to compromise OGE’s work or the future activities of the nominees.
“It would, however, be cause for alarm if the Senate were to go forward on hearings on nominees whose reports OGE has not certified,” Shaub said. “For as long as I remain director, OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials will not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest.”
In a statement, the Trump transition team blasted OGE for taking a political stance.
"In the midst of a historic election where Americans voted to drain the swamp, it is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country," Trump’s team said. "This is a disservice to the country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president."
Warren called on Senate leadership to push back hearings until OGE can complete its work.
“This is ridiculous,” Warren said. “Donald Trump’s nominees can’t drag their feet on their required ethics paperwork while their friends in the Senate try to run out the clock. Cabinet officials must put the interests of our country before their own bank accounts—and no Senate confirmation hearings should be held until we are 100 percent certain that is the case. That’s good government—and it prevents nominees from breaking the law.”
As several Democratic senators have noted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote a letter in 2009 demanding all of then President-elect Obama’s nominees complete the OGE process prior to their confirmations. Many of the nominees had already completed the confirmation hearing process at that point however. On Monday at Trump Tower in New York, McConnell attempted to downplay any concerns.
“Everybody will be properly vetted as they have been in the past, and I'm hopeful that we'll get up to six or seven—particularly the national security team—in place on day one,” McConnell said.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said on Monday he expects the next administration’s nominees to receive “broad bipartisan support.” He said the nominees have collectively held 300 meetings with senators and have participated in 30 mock hearings where they've fielded thousands of questions.