Policy Letter

DOJ Should Investigate Potential Ethics Violations by White House

February 9, 2017

The Honorable Jeff Sessions

Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Sessions:

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

POGO is requesting that the Department of Justice launch an investigation into possible ethics violations by White House staff, including the recent communications of Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway and Assistant to the President and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino Jr. endorsing the personal business interests of Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Trump and spouse of Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner.

On February 9, in an interview on the Fox News show Fox & Friends, Conway repeatedly endorsed Ivanka Trump’s fashion business while speaking in her capacity as Counselor to the President.[1] In the interview, Conway twice stated that individuals should “go buy” Ivanka Trump’s products. At the end of the interview, Conway stated that she was going to “fully…give a free commercial” for Ivanka’s business venture, and then stated: “Go buy it today everybody, you can find it online.” These endorsements appear to violate ethics regulations prohibiting the misuse of office, as stated at 5 CFR § 2635.

Additionally, Dan Scavino Jr. appears to have violated ethics regulations by retweeting President Trump’s tweet regarding Ivanka Trump’s business dealings with the department store Nordstrom. On February 8, President Trump tweeted, “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” on his personal Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump).[2] Scavino retweeted this message from two separate Twitter accounts listing his capacity as Assistant to the President and Director of Social Media at the White House (@DanScavino and @Scavino45), and possibly from the official Twitter account of the President of the United States (@POTUS), where he is listed as being responsible for the tweets.[3] These actions also appear to violate the same ethics regulations.

While President Trump may be exempt from some conflict of interest and ethics laws, rules, and regulations, his staff at the White House are not.

Subpart G (Sections701-705) of 5 CFR § 2635 discusses misuse of one’s government position by executive branch employees. Section 2635.702 specifically discusses the use of public office for private gain, which not only covers the private gain of the relevant executive branch employee, but also actions that benefit:

  1. Friends
  2. Relatives
  3. Persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity, including nonprofit organizations of which the employee is an officer or member
  4. Persons with whom the employee has or seeks employment or business relations

Under 5 CFR § 2635.702, an executive branch employee may not use his or her public office to induce benefits for themselves or any of the above parties by, including but not limited to:

  1. Inducement or coercion[4]
  2. Creating the appearance of government sanctions[5]
  3. Endorsing any product, service, or enterprise[6]
  4. Performing official duties that affect a private interest[7]

POGO believes the communications by Conway and Scavino violated the provisions prohibiting the use of public office for private gain.

Additionally, Conway, Scavino, and other White House staff may have violated other conflict of interest laws in these cases, including laws pertaining to the use of government property and official time for unauthorized purposes.[8]

Preventing conflicts of interest is important to ensuring public servants operate in the best interest of the public, rather than in ways that solely benefit their own financial interests or those of friends, relatives, or other close associates. The public deserves to have trust in every government mission, program, and policy.

It has been reported that Conway “has been counseled” on her actions, but “that’s all.”[9] The Department of Justice should initiate an investigation into Conway’s and Scavino’s actions to determine if violations occurred and, if so, what accountability measures should be implemented to ensure full compliance with all conflict of interest and ethics laws and regulations.

If you have any questions, please contact me or POGO General Counsel Scott Amey at 202-347-1122.


Danielle Brian

Executive Director

cc: U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section

Office of Government Ethics Director Walter M. Shaub, Jr.

[1] See Attachment A. Fox News, Kellyanne Conway Interview on Fox & Friends, “Kellyanne Conway addresses rumors about Sean Spicer's job,” February 9, 2017. http://video.foxnews.com/v/5316971350001

[2] See Attachment B. Twitter, Personal Twitter Handle of President Donald Trump, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump.

[3] See Attachments C-E. Twitter, Twitter Handle 1 of Dan Scavino, https://twitter.com/DanScavino; Twitter, Twitter Handle 2 of Dan Scavino, https://twitter.com/Scavino45; Twitter, Official Twitter Handle of the President of the United States, https://twitter.com/POTUS.

[4] 5 CFR § 2635.702(a).

[5] 5 CFR § 2635.702(b).

[6] 5 CFR § 2635.702(c).

[7] 5 CFR § 2635.702(d).

[8] 5 CFR §§ 2635.704 and 2635.705.

[9] The White House, “Press Briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer,” February 9, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6Vp0bQAhJ8