By Julie Bykowicz
WASHINGTON — The message from a senator to the government ethics office: Use your authority to force the president to reveal how many waivers he’s granted to ex-lobbyists in his new administration.
That was Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s demand to the Office of Government Ethics in June 2009. He was seeking information about some of President Barack Obama’s most controversial appointees, the people who used to make their living pressing the federal government for money and policies.
Eight years and a political flip later, Republicans in President Donald Trump’s administration say OGE lacks that authority, and they’ve asserted that there’s no need for them to publicly disclose any ethics waivers.
Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney is asking that ethics Director Walter Shaub halt his inquiry into lobbyists-turned-Trump administration employees.
“In particular, this data call appears to raise legal questions regarding the scope of OGE’s authorities,” Mulvaney wrote in a letter last week to Shaub, first reported by the New York Times.
The back-and-forth follows a request Shaub made in late April that agency heads share with his office by June 1 waivers the Trump administration has issued to its ethics policies concerning lobbyists.
Mulvaney’s letter indicates that administration agencies, such as Treasury, Commerce and Defense, won’t be responding to Shaub. And there’s a longstanding legal question about whether the White House itself is subject to any disclosure to the OGE. The Office of the White House Counsel has until June 1 to comply with Shaub’s data request or decline in writing.
As part of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington, he continued an Obama-era two-year prohibition of lobbyists and lawyers hired as political appointees from working on “particular” government matters that involved their former clients.
Trump also instituted a five-year lobbying prohibition and lifetime ban on foreign government lobbying for people who later leave his administration.
Like Obama, Trump is making exceptions to his own rules. In his two terms as president, Obama granted waivers to 66 White House and administration employees, according to what the Office of Government Ethics posted on its website.
“In the Obama administration, the President ordered that waivers be shared with OGE, and we gladly did so,” Obama’s chief ethics counsel Norman Eisen said Monday.
Waivers continue under the Trump administration, but the extent of them is unknown because his executive actions on ethics do not include provisions for public disclosure or information-sharing with OGE.
While each administration has the authority to grant waivers, there should be some central repository for the public to learn when an employee has been granted one, said Sean Moulton, open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.
Eisen called the move by Mulvaney “the latest salvo in his attack on good government.”
Democratic lawmakers also seized on the White House’s desire to keep ethics waivers private — in such a way that seemed to channel Grassley circa 2009. They asked the OGE to keep up the fight.
“It is critical that you and your office make transparent how the individuals serving in the Trump Administration are complying, or failing to comply, with President Trump’s executive order and other ethics requirements,” Rep. Elijah Cummings and other Democrats on the House Oversight Committee wrote in a letter dated May 19. “Your role is particularly important because the White House itself is keeping this information secret.”
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who says he is soon leaving office, did not respond to requests for comment.
Back in 2009, Grassley asked the OGE force “the Obama administration to live up to its word.”
“As a senior member of the United States Senate, I have consistently worked to ensure that the business of the Government is done in as open and transparent manner as possible,” Grassley wrote in his June 10, 2009, letter to OGE’s then-director Robert Cusick.
Grassley’s office did not return repeated requests for comment Monday.