Government Ethics Chief Caught in Lawmaker Crossfire

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., (left)  has defended the head of OGE against attacks from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., (left) has defended the head of OGE against attacks from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Walter Shaub, the Obama administration appointee running the Office of Government Ethics, on Thursday found himself being blasted by a Republican committee chairman and then defended by his Democratic counterparts as he continues to question the adequacy of President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to remove potential conflicts of interests from his vast business holdings.

In a Jan. 12 letter, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Shaub to make an appointment for a closed-door interview this month. The lawmaker criticized the Twitter offerings the OGE made this fall, saying it is “not clear whether the tweets constitute official OGE guidance or something less formal,” but that the “tweets publicized private discussions with the president-elect’s counsel.”

Chaffetz said the OGE had “blurred lines” on its role as far back as May 2015 because it had not conducted any investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and possible ethical conflicts at the Clinton Foundation.

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On Friday, Chaffetz’s move was attacked by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member, who for weeks has been pressing for hearings on Trump’s approach to ethics rules and traditions.

"The Oversight Committee is supposed to protect whistleblowers and independent government watchdogs like the Office of Government Ethics instead of retaliating against them for political reasons,” Cummings said. “Yesterday, I asked Chairman Chaffetz to hold a public hearing so the American people could hear firsthand from the head of OGE about President-elect Donald Trump's refusal to divest. Instead, the chairman chose to attack the director and demand that he appear for a closed-door interview.”

Chaffetz’s letter to Shaub did not address the ethics chief’s recent comments that Trump’s plan to turn his business empire over to his adult children as a trust was “wholly inadequate.” But in an interview with Politico, Chaffetz said, “He seems to be acting prematurely at best, without doing investigations or thorough looks. He’s rendering opinions publicly that really cause you to scratch your head. We need the Office of Government Ethics to act ethically. Ironically, that’s not what they’re doing.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also weighed in on Friday, saying, “The Republicans are at it again, filling the swamp instead of draining it. First, House Republicans tried to gut the Office of Congressional ethics. Now they're trying to handcuff the Office of Government Ethics. Mr. Chaffetz's attempts to bully Mr. Shaub out of doing his job are absolutely despicable.”

The OGE did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

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