Transparency groups complain of possible Hatch Act violations, department alterations.
Within hours of the long-sought release of his financial disclosure forms, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s past political and business activities prompted transparency groups to pounce with new complaints.
Possible violations of the Hatch Act prohibiting partisan political activity in the federal workplace, incomplete information on the two key forms and apparent changes made by the Justice Department’s ethics office form the basis of new written complaints filed on Wednesday with the Office of Government Ethics, the Office of Special Counsel and the department itself.
The legal moves come as Whitaker’s past lucrative paychecks totaling $1.2 million from a vaguely structured conservative nonprofit transparency group were reported by The Washington Post. And they come as Democrats on Capitol Hill have challenged the legality of Whitaker’s appointment and demanded that he recuse himself from decisions affecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
The transparency legal group American Oversight on Wednesday, after analyzing the two Whitaker ethics forms released on Tuesday, sent one written complaint to the Office of Special Counsel alleging potential violations of the Hatch Act in Whitaker’s receipt of a political contribution for a previous Senate campaign while serving as a senior employee at the Justice Department as then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.
American Oversight sent another complaint to the Office of Government Ethics calling for an investigation into Whitaker’s “apparent failure to disclose a significant asset—an outstanding loan of nearly $50,000 made to his former Senate campaign—on his Form 278 financial disclosure.”
"The nation’s highest law enforcement officer should be above reproach, but acting Attorney General Whitaker’s financial disclosures raise potential concerns of both dishonesty and covert partisan conflicts of interest," said Austin Evers, the group’s executive director. "Even after days of refusing to release these forms while they underwent last-minute revisions, Whitaker hasn’t been able to avoid obvious problems that demand investigation."
The documents received at the OGE and released by request of American Oversight include Whitaker’s original financial disclosure form signed on Oct. 4, 2017, and his required annual update reviewed by Justice Department ethics office Director Cynthia Shaw.
The Hatch Act issues stem from Whitaker having been a candidate in a 2014 Senate primary race in Iowa, for which his campaign committee remains legally active. Between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2, 2018, the group’s summary said, the campaign committee received four political contributions totaling $8,800, some from Whitaker lobbying clients. Whitaker’s campaign last February is also reported to have made rental payments for office space at his former law firm.
“Whitaker was, and remains, the only creditor of his 2014 campaign, arising from a personal loan he made to his campaign—of which $49,187.37 remains un-repaid,” American Oversight wrote. “If the 2018 contributions were made to retire that debt, the money would benefit Whitaker personally—raising serious concerns about the potential for improper political influence on the nation's top law enforcement official.”
American Oversight did conclude that the $1.2 million in paychecks from a conservative nonprofit reported by the Post was accounted for on Whitaker's financial disclosure forms.
The complaint to the Office of Government Ethics asks for an investigation into Whitaker’s apparent failure to report the $50,000 loan he made to his 2014 campaign committee.
The apparent alterations the Justice ethics office may have recently made to Whitaker’s ethics forms and the forms’ tardy release prompted a separate Freedom of Information Act request from the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW on Tuesday asked for all versions of Whitaker’s OGE form 278e, a list of staff who reviewed and approved the form, and any correspondence by Justice Department staff about the form and delays in its certification.
“Now we know why DoJ hid Whitaker’s financial disclosures,” said former OGE Director Walter Shaub, now with CREW and regularly tweeting. “Something is VERY rotten in Denmark & we’re going to get to the bottom of it. We’re legally entitled to the versions of these reports that existed on the date we requested them, Nov. 7,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Shaub added that “Whitaker filed his new entrant financial disclosure report OVER A YEAR AGO, but DoJ did not certify (approve) it until now. It’s very strange and not at all normal that this would have taken a year for a top agency official. That raises red flags.”
CREW had originally requested the documents at the time of Whitaker’s appointment just after this month’s Election Day.
The Office of Special Counsel on Wednesday confirmed receipt of the complaint. The Justice Department did not respond to Government Executive inquiries by Wednesday afternoon.