Before he resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics last July, Walter Shaub was fond of tweeting about his dismay with the Trump White House’s handling of issues such as financial disclosure and ethics waivers.
But Emory Rounds III, President Trump’s nominee to run the governmentwide ethics office, told senators on Wednesday that, if confirmed, he would “make it clear when he’s making an official statement as the director.”
In a hearing at which he was well received by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Rounds confirmed his belief that White House employees are subject to the jurisdiction of OGE—a position that some in the Trump White House have challenged.
The ethics office “has not been shy and won’t be shy in the future to take action to protect government's laws and rules,” said Rounds, currently an associate counsel at OGE who previously served in the ethics office of the Commerce Department and in the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps. OGE should be an “important solid, firm independent adviser, analogous to a good doctor,” he added.
Rounds was pressed by Sens. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., about what can be done if “the biggest ethics violators are the people at the top.”
“In this current climate of intense partisanship and suspicion, the importance of this office cannot be overstated,” Jones said, expressing hope that Rounds once confirmed would execute some the get-tough recommendations of his predecessor internally.
Hassan said, “If the tone isn’t set correctly at the top, it’s difficult for the public to have trust.”
Rounds stated that OGE has evolved since it was created in 1978 and will continue to do so. He promised to use “persuasion and whatever personal skills I might have” to work with the Trump White House employees, “and to listen to them as well.”
The Democrats expressed particular concern about a lack of transparency around how funds are being distributed by the Patriot Legal Defense Fund Trust set up this year to aid Trump associates under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, which former OGE chief Shaub attacked. Rounds merely promised to re-review the current guidance.
The nominee declared that “the tone from the top is critical to fostering and maintaining a strong ethics culture and a positive tone requires more than mere technical compliance.” And he called the OGE “underfunded, understaffed and, to a greater extent, under-appreciated.”
Hearing Chairman Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., made clear that he expects easy confirmation for Rounds, along with District of Columbia Superior Court associate judge nominee Kelly Higashi and U.S. controller nominee Frederick Nutt.
Nutt, nominated by Trump last September, would bring to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Financial Management his financial systems experience from years on Capitol Hill and at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the U.S. Private Investment Corporation.
“My practical experience has given me a holistic understanding of federal financial systems and how they interact with other systems. I understand the life-cycle of a federal dollar from appropriation to disbursement,” he said, citing his family’s experience in traditional farming and oyster farming in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay area.
Nutt is currently acting as a senior adviser to OMB. His only clash with the senators came after Tom Carper, D-Del., asked him about his agenda in real property management. Nutt called it “an area somewhat neglected in the past that needs to be elevated.”
Carper assured him that the topic “has not been neglected in this committee.”