Tuesday, May 02, 2017
NY TIMES RE: PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP'S SECRET ETHICS WAIVERS
So TRUMP says the White House is not a federal agency?
WASHINGTON — The federal government’s top ethics officer is challenging the Trump administration’s issuance of secret waivers that allow former lobbyists to handle matters they recently worked on, setting up a confrontation between the ethics office and President Trump.
The move by Walter M. Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, is the latest sign of rising tension between Mr. Shaub and the Trump White House. Mr. Shaub has tried several times to use his limited powers to force Mr. Trump to broadly honor federal ethics rules as well as the ethics order that Mr. Trump himself signed in late January.
Historically, the Office of Government Ethics — a tiny operation that has just 71 employees but that supervises an ethics program covering 2.7 million civilian executive branch workers — has maintained a low profile. Created in 1978 after the Watergate scandal, it does not have subpoena power or its own investigators.
But Mr. Shaub, in the last year of a five-year presidential appointment, is now pressing Mr. Trump for more information on former lobbyists or employees of corporations working in the president’s administration. The effort started before Inauguration Day to persuade Mr. Trump and his staff to comply with more conventional ethics standards used during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
The most recent request came late Friday, when Mr. Shaub asked every executive branch agency — including the White House — to give him, by June 1, a copy of any waivers issued to political employees allowing them to ignore any part of the executive branch’s ethics policies, saying in his letter that he was “advancing the mission of the executive branch ethics program.”
Such waivers are typically issued when the administration wants to allow a new political employee to work on an issue, like federal housing or environmental policy, that involves people the new employee may have worked with previously. For example, Ernest J. Moniz, the energy secretary in the Obama administration, was allowed to work on matters that involved General Electric, even though Mr. Moniz, as a nuclear physicist, had served on a General Electric advisory board. About 70 such waivers were issued during the Obama administration.
Mr. Trump, in his ethics order, made several fundamental changes in this process, some of which Mr. Shaub is challenging.
First, Mr. Trump eliminated a prohibition imposed by President Barack Obama in 2009 on the hiring of staff members who in the previous two years had lobbied the agency they now wanted to work for. Former lobbyists seeking jobs in Mr. Trump’s administration must get a waiver from the ethics rules if they want to work on matters that overlap with their lobbying assignments in the previous two years.
But Mr. Trump has chosen to keep the waivers secret. He dropped a practice, in place during the Obama administration, that any waiver would be shared with the Office of Government Ethics and posted on the White House website or the ethics office’s website, or on both.
The combined result — eliminating the ban on hiring former lobbyists and keeping secret any waivers granted to new hires — means the public has no way of knowing if Mr. Trump’s staff members are complying with the rules. Terminating the release of the White House visitor logs, which were public during the Obama administration, has made evaluating compliance even harder, as it is now not known which private-sector players are meeting with White House aides.
For example, Michael Catanzaro, who until recently worked as a lobbyist for companies like Devon Energy and for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers association, is now in charge of White House environmental policy, an issue related to the topics he handled as a lobbyist. He may or may not have been granted a waiver by the White House. A White House spokeswoman declined to say.
The White House, in a written statement, said officials were reviewing Mr. Shaub’s request and had not decided how to respond.
“However, in the meantime we would like to reiterate our position that the White House and the White House Ethics Office are fully compliant with ethical obligations set forth in the standards of conduct,” the statement said. “Anyone that claims otherwise is purposefully mischaracterizing the White House’s position.”
Mr. Shaub has tried to at least force the White House to make any waivers public. He is doing so by using his power to issue a “data call” for copies of all waivers issued in the last year. That would include the final months of the Obama administration and the first four months of the Trump administration.
He has quietly escalated his battle with the White House. A second letter he sent late last week to the top senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also made clear that the ethics office intends to make a similar request early next year that will cover all such waivers granted in 2017.
Mr. Shaub made headlines when he authorized his staff to publish a series of Twitter posts in December related to how Mr. Trump would separate himself from his family business operations. Then, in January, in an unusual public statement, Mr. Shaub called Mr. Trump’s steps “wholly inadequate,” even though Mr. Shaub did not have the power to order Mr. Trump to take additional steps.
The White House has pushed back at Mr. Shaub. A letter sent in late February by Stefan C. Passantino, the top White House ethics lawyer, argued that Mr. Shaub does not have jurisdiction over the White House staff at all because the White House is not formally a federal agency.
Mr. Shaub wrote back bluntly to Mr. Passantino in March: “That assertion is incorrect, and the letter cites no legal basis for it.”
Mr. Shaub’s data call will test this dispute. He appears to have clear authority to order the leaders of federal agencies to provide him with a copy of all ethics waivers granted in the last year. But he may not be able to force the White House to provide similar information, even if Democrats in Congress join in urging the White House to respond to the request, which is likely.
Posting these waivers in a public place provides a degree of confirmation that the executive branch is honoring the ethics agreement. Anytime Mr. Obama wanted to make an exception, said Norman L. Eisen, an ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, it needed to be explained in detail in a letter from the head of the agency and then made available for public inspection. “We were committed to transparency, even when it was painful,” Mr. Eisen said. “And at times the debate about these waivers was not fun for us.”
In fact, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, in a letter to Office of Government Ethics in 2009, pressed the Obama administration to ensure that it was disclosing all such waivers, explaining that “the American people deserve a full accounting of all waivers and recusals to better understand who is running the government and whether the administration is adhering to its promise to be open, transparent, and accountable.”