Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Power Struggle Intensifies Between White House and Ethics Office

The Trump Administration, in a significant Escalation of its Clash with the Government’s top Ethics Watchdog, has moved to Block an effort to Disclose the names of Former Lobbyists who have been Granted Waivers to work in the White House or Federal Agencies.

In a May 17th Letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the Head of the the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), questioned whether has Legal Jurisdiction to get information about Granted Waivers. He said the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel may needed to be consulted. “I therefore request that you stay the data call until these questions are resolved,” Mulvaney wrote.

The OGE, asking every Federal Agency for Copies of all the Waivers, then Shaub intends to make the Documents Public.

Mr. Shaub returned a scalding, 10-page response to the White House late Monday. “O.G.E. declines your request to suspend its ethics inquiry and reiterates its expectation that agencies will fully comply with its directive,” Mr. Shaub wrote in a letter he also sent to every Federal Agency Ethics Officer, six Members of Congress who oversee government Operations and the Inspector Generals from Agencies Government-wide. “Public confidence in the integrity of government decision making demands no less.”

Dozens of former Lobbyists and Industry Lawyers are working in the Trump Administration, which has hired them at a much Higher Rate than the previous Administration. Keeping the Waivers Confidential would make it impossible to know whether any such Officials are Violating Federal ethics Rules or have been given a Pass to Ignore them.

Mr. Shaub, who is in the final year of a five-year term after being appointed by President Obama, said he had no intention of backing down. “It is an extraordinary thing,” he said of the White House request. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Marilyn L. Glynn, who served as General Counsel and Acting Director of the Agency during the George W. Bush Administration, also called the move by the Trump White House “unprecedented and extremely troubling”. “It challenges the very authority of the director of the agency and his ability to carry out the functions of the office,” she said.

In a statement issued Sunday Evening, the OMB rejected the criticism and instead blamed Mr. Shaub, saying his call for the information, issued in late April, was motivated by Politics.

President Trump signed an Executive Order in late January, echoing language first endorsed by Obama, that Prohibited Lobbyists and Lawyers hired as Political Appointees from working for two years on “particular” Government matters that involved their former Clients. In the case of former Lobbyists, they could not work on the same Regulatory Issues they had been involved in.

Both Trump and Obama reserved the right to issue Waivers to this Ban. Obama, unlike Trump, automatically made any such Waivers Public, offering Detailed Explanations. The Exceptions were typically granted for people with special Skills, or when the overlap between the new Federal work and a prior job was minor.

Ms. Glynn, who worked in the OGE for nearly two decades, said she had never heard of a move by any previous White House to Block a Request like Mr. Shaub’s. She recalled how the Bush White House had intervened with a Federal Agency during her tenure to get information that she needed.

Democrats in the House and Senate also jumped in. Eighteen House Democrats from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee made Public a letter they sent last week, protesting the issuing of Secret Ethics Waivers, and Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, all Democrats, added their protests Monday.

“If O.M.B. does not stand down from its attempt to prevent designated agency ethics officials from responding to the O.G.E. data call, we will seek the waivers directly ourselves,” the letter from the Senators said. “The administration certainly cannot dispute that Congress has the right to this information.”

Ethics watchdogs, as well as Democrats in Congress, have expressed concern at the number of former Lobbyists taking High-Ranking Political Jobs in the Trump Administration. In many cases, they appear to be working on the Exact Topics they had previously handled on behalf of Private-Sector Clients, including Oil and Gas Companies and Wall Street Banks, as recently as January.

Federal law gives the Office of Government Ethics, which was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, clear Legal Authority to issue such a “data request” to the Ethics Officers at Federal Agencies. This is the main power the Office has to Oversee Compliance with Federal Ethics Standards. It is less clear whether it has the power to demand such information from the White House. Historically, there has been some debate over whether the White House is a “Federal Agency” or, as it calls itself, the “Executive Office of the President.” Such an office might not be subject to Oversight.

Norman Eisen, the top White House Ethics Lawyer in the first years of the Obama Administration, said he believed that the Trump Administration was trying to intimidate Federal Ethics Officers, who are Career Appointees, without actually ordering them to ignore the Directive from the Ethics Chief. “It is yet another demonstration of disrespect for the rule of law and for ethics and transparency coming from the White House,” Mr. Eisen said.

Shaub, in a conference call with Federal Government Ethics Officers told them that he had the Clear Authority to make such a Request and that they were still obligated under federal Law to provide the requested information, according to a federal Official who participated in the call.

The response that Shaub sent twice called the move by the Trump Administration to Block his effort “highly unusual” as he directly Challenged the White House. He offered page after page of Legal Arguments explaining why it had no Justification for Preventing him from Collecting the Requested Ethics Waiver information from federal Agencies, complete with detailed Legal footnotes citing relevant federal Laws. “Agency ethics officials are well aware of their legal obligation to produce information and records subject to O.G.E.’s directives,” he wrote in his letter to Mulvaney. “In fact, dozens of agencies have already complied with O.G.E.’s current directive well in advance of the June 1, 2017, deadline. In addition, your own agency has a solid record of compliance with O.G.E.’s information and records production directives.”

Shaub also cited a Request from Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, for Copies of such Waivers at the start of the Obama Administration. “The work of the government is the work of the people and it should be public and available for all to see,” said the letter sent by Grassley in 2009, which Shaub quoted in his letter to Mr. Mulvaney. “It has been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that opening up the business of the government will ensure that the public trust is not lost.”

Tensions between Trump and Shaub first started to grow in late November when the OGE sent out an unusual series of Twitter messages urging Trump to limit potential Conflicts of Interest by selling off his Real Estate Assets. Shaub then gave a speech in January, after Trump announced that he would not take such a step, which was highly critical of the incoming President, provoking speculation that Shaub might be fired before his term ended.

“One of the things that make America truly great is its system for preventing public corruption,” Shaub said during that speech. “Our executive branch ethics program is considered the gold standard internationally and has served as a model for the world. But that program starts with the office of the president. The president-elect must show those in government — and those coming into government after his inauguration — that ethics matters.”

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