Yesterday’s release by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) of waivers to President Trump’s ethics pledge shed a sliver of light on political appointees’ conflicts of interest and a bright beam on the need for a public repository of government ethics filings. The OGE release follows the Project On Government Oversight’s recent investigation into how the Trump administration is handling ethics. Though the waivers that OGE released and information POGO unearthed during its investigation provide some insight into Trump’s appointees’ conflicts of interest, the full picture is still far from clear due to vague definitions, loopholes, and decades-old systemic weaknesses in the federal government’s ethics system.
OGE posted waivers for 20 officials from seven agencies in response to a letter it sent to federal agency heads requesting waivers issued or approved between May 1, 2016, and April 30, 2017. Ten of those waivers were issued after Trump took office on January 20, 2017, and the others were granted during the last year of the Obama administration. The Trump appointees who received waivers include Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, for dealing with Australia after holding a teaching position there; Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, for his wife’s employment with the Georgia General Assembly; and HHS Chief of Staff Lance Leggitt, who had lobbied on health care issues for the firm Baker Donelson.
Waivers were also issued to three former attorneys from the law firm Jones Day, which has represented Trump since his campaign began. The three attorneys are Noel Francisco, Trump’s nominee for Solicitor General; Michael Murray, Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General; and Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler. The waivers allow the attorneys to represent Trump in his battles against various entities over his immigration-related executive order; after the three attorneys went to work for the Trump administration, Jones Day filed an amicus brief in the suit filed against Trump by Washington state. The waivers argue that “it benefits the government” for the attorneys to assist “in the highly fluid legal environment surrounding the immigration order.” The waivers also allow Readler to continue working on two politically significant cases, one regarding the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and another pitting homeowners insurance industry associations against the Housing and Urban Development agency. The waivers were notable for the lack of explanatory information justifying the waiver.
POGO’s investigation also found that waivers are rarely issued for political appointees. POGO had filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking for all ethics waivers and recusal agreements/records issued from January 1, 2017, through the date of the request’s processing. Twenty-eight federal agencies provided no ethics waivers relating to political appointees in the Trump administration (two of these agencies responded after our story was published on Tuesday; see table). None of the agencies that responded to POGO submitted waivers to OGE with the exception of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which submitted two waivers on behalf of Chairman Mary Jo White Because White was an Obama appointee, the waivers fell outside the time frame of POGO’s request.
At a minimum, the waivers demonstrate how important it is for the public to have access to information about who is running their government—information the Trump administration appeared to obstruct when it challenged OGE’s authority to request the waivers. As Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) pointed out during the Obama administration, “there is no one place taxpayers can go to find all the waivers and recusals issued former lobbyists by the White House and federal agencies.” While OGE’s disclosures are a big step in this direction, Grassley’s observation remains true today because there is no requirement that recusals be written down and centrally available to the public. Such a repository with all recusals and waiver documents is an easy and important step that this administration should support.