The Latest Republican Assault on Ethics

jason-chaffetz

Republican Jason Chaffetz kicked off his chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee – a group of 42 members of Congress who, in their own words, “exercise effective oversight over the federal government and will work proactively to investigate and expose waste, fraud, and abuse” – by making a thinly-veiled threat to Walter M. Shaub, Jr., the man in charge of monitoring ethics breaches in the federal government.

Shaub is the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). (Nope, it’s not the same body that Republicans tried to essentially eliminate earlier this month; that was the Office of Congressional Ethics.) On Thursday, he received a sternly-worded letter from Chaffetz, who’s ostensibly upset that Shaub gave a speech this week publicly criticizing Donald Trump’s failure to resolve his substantial conflicts of interest before taking office.

Shaub gave the speech on Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. Here’s an excerpt:

I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met. My hope is that, if the Office of Government Ethics can provide some constructive feedback on his plan, he may choose to make adjustments that will resolve his conflicts of interest.

The full speech can be found here.

Sure, the speech was out of the ordinary; it’s not often that the head of OGE uses a public forum to express major concerns about the incoming president. But, then again, when was the last time that a president-elect had such historic conflicts of interest?

Interestingly, Chaffetz’s letter to Shaub doesn’t mention the Brookings speech. It does, however, call out a series of tweets made by the OGE Twitter account in late November – a month and a half ago! – that praised Donald Trump for fully divesting himself from his company. (Anyone who’s been following the news knows that Trump did not, in fact, divest himself – but apparently OGE thought at the time that he would do so.)

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Chaffetz complains that the tweets

publicized private discussions with the President-elect’s counsel. The tweets also created the appearance that OGE approved the President-elect’s divestiture plan, which caused further confusion.

He then makes very clear – in veiled language, of course – that OGE is at risk of being shut down altogether if it continues to publicly comment on the president-elect’s conflicts of interest.

Your agency’s mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations. The Committee is thus continuing its examination of OGE’s operations. OGE’s statutory authorization lapsed at the end of fiscal year 2007 and the Committee has jurisdiction in the House of Representatives for reauthorizing the office.

Chaffetz closes the letter by requesting a closed-door meeting with Shaub to discuss “how you perceive OGE’s role, among other things.”

Not a good sign for the government body in charge of preventing conflicts of interest in the executive branch.

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