ON NOTICE

Ethics Watchdog to White House: You’re Not Above the Law

The Office of Government Ethics is unhappy with the White House again, warning that no one, not even the Executive Branch, is completely exempt from its rules.

SAUL LOEB/Getty

A top government ethics watchdog on Thursday pushed back against White House claims that its employees are not subject to ethics rules that bind every other federal government official.

Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, told Stefan Passatino, President Donald Trump’s deputy counsel, that the claim has no basis in law or precedent.

Passatino’s “extraordinary assertion that ‘many’ of OGE' s regulations are inapplicable to employees of the Executive Office of the President...is incorrect, and the letter cites no legal basis for it,” Shaub wrote in a Thursday letter.

The missive, the latest salvo between OGE and the White House, was in response to a Feb. 13 letter in which Passatino told Shaub that the White House was complying with some OGE rules even though it was not legally bound to do so.

“Many regulations promulgated by [OGE] do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President,” Passatino wrote.

OGE has been in frequent contact with Trump’s team since the election and over the first month his presidency to try to hammer out legal and administrative issues created by the president’s sizable wealth and accompanying conflicts of interest.

Despite that contact, Shaub’s Thursday letter shows that major points of contention remain regarding federal ethics rules. Trump has insisted that conflict-of-interest rules do not apply to the president.

But Passatino’s statement went even further, and Shaub was adamant that it was legally unfounded and contradicted the practices of past White Houses.

“Presidential administrations have not considered it appropriate to challenge the applicability of ethics rules to the entire executive branch,” Shaub wrote. “It is critical to the public's faith in the integrity of government that White House employees be held to the same standard of ethical accountability as other executive branch employees.”

Shaub also took aim at the White House’s apparent refusal to discipline a senior staffer for using her position to enrich a member of Trump’s family, even as it seemed to admit wrongdoing.

Passatino’s initial claim came in response to an OGE inquiry into White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of First Daughter Ivanka Trump’s fashion line.

"It's a wonderful line," Conway said in a February appearance on Fox News. "I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody."

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That statement appeared to run afoul of a federal law designed to prevent corruption.

“An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity,” the law states.

Passatino acknowledged the apparent violation in his letter to Shaub, but indicated that the White House considered the matter resolved.

“I personally met with Ms. Conway and advised her that her comments regarding Ms. Trump's products implicated the prohibition on using one's official position to endorse any product or service,” Passatino wrote. “Ms. Conway has acknowledged her understanding of the Standards and has reiterated her commitment to abiding by them in the future.”

Shaub was not satisfied.

“When an employee's conduct violates [the law at issue], disciplinary action serves to deter future misconduct,” he wrote. “Not taking disciplinary action against a senior official under such circumstances risks undermining the ethics program.”

OGE released the letter on Thursday after notifying House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz and ranking member Elijah Cummings of Shaub’s objections.

“The White House's response makes clear that disciplinary action will not be taken,” Shaub told Cummings and Chaffetz.

“Of greater concern, the White House's response includes assertions challenging the applicability of ethics rules and OGE's authority to oversee the ethics program for.the entire executive branch,” he added. “OGE disagrees with these assertions.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Shaub’s letter.