As President Donald Trump’s administration endures controversy over its ties to profitable, private interests, Senate Judiciary Committee leaders are asking the White House to immediately make public how the White House has dealt with potential ethical conflicts.
The administration has been under fire for hiring former lobbyists to sensitive positions, after Trump vowed to “drain the swamp.” Michael Catanzaro, who lobbied for oil and gas interests, is Trump’s top energy aide. Shahira Knight, an investment firm lobbyist, is a special adviser to Trump for tax policy.
They are among 11 officials who got an ethics waiver from the Trump administration, a system that allows people to serve in government despite their ties to the industries or individuals that once employed them. The waivers can allow officials to deal with those who once employed or retained them.
Also on the list is senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, a political pollster who the waiver says can “participate in communications and meetings involving former clients.”
But are there more such disclosures that need to be made? That’s what the committee wants to know.
Its request for full disclosure is not unusual. The panel asked President Barack Obama’s administration for the same information, and his administration had 66 such ethics waivers.
The judiciary committee leaders, including both Republicans and Democrats, note in the letter that the public is best served when such waivers are quickly and automatically posted.
The administration posted its waivers in response to a formal request from the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics. The White House says it has now posted on its own website all the waiver information requested by the ethics office, and will continue to update disclosures as additional waivers are granted.
Trump is the first president to have not served in government before taking office, and many of his appointees have similar backgrounds. It’s unclear if Trump himself needs a waiver, or how many people in his administration would require them.
The judiciary letter was signed by Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee’s top Democrat, and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.
The letter notes that the presidential ethics pledges restrict the participation of "former lobbyists and other appointees...in particular matters as a condition of their government employment."
"We expect the administration to continue to make these waivers publicly available as they are granted," the letter states.
They ask Mick Mulvaney, the administration’s budget director, to make sure that any waivers to an ethics pledge Trump established as a requirement for employment in January are quickly made public on the ethics website.
The senators did not respond to requests for additional comment. The ethics office declined comment on the matter.
The letter stresses that making the waivers public helps the public "be confident that government employees are working in their interest."
It says "We trust that you believe this standard is reasonable," adding it is important people "understand how those employed at the highest levels of our government are fully focused on the public interest and not a private interest."
The letter does not imply any ethical lapse in granting the waivers. It notes that the executive orders issued by Obama and Trump “included provisions allowing the president or his designee to issue a waiver to any individual appointee."
But, the letter notes, "The business of government should be open, transparent, and accountable to the American people."
The waivers granted by the Obama administration involved some of the administration’s top officials.
Eric Holder became Obama’s attorney general in 2009. He was granted an ethics waiver noting that he was "generally recused from participation in matters with parties in which your former firm is or represents a party."