08.01.17

Peters, Grassley & Feinstein Call for Increased Transparency in Administration Ethics Disclosures

Letter Urges Administration to Make Ethics Waivers Immediately Publicly Available

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today sent a letter urging Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney to ensure that any executive branch ethics pledge waivers granted by the Trump Administration are immediately provided to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and made publicly available. Previous Administrations have provided similar waivers to the OGE at the time of their issuance, which were then made available to the public on the OGE website in response to congressional requests. Senator Grassley strongly urged the Obama Administration to make its waivers public.

“Public disclosure of these records, including ethics pledge waivers, is essential to ensuring that ethical commitments are maintained so that the American people can be confident that government employees are working in their interest,” wrote the Senators. “Please ensure that the practice of providing ethics pledge waivers and recusals to OGE contemporaneously upon their issuance is continued. We trust that you believe this standard is reasonable in that it allows the American people to better understand how those employed at the highest levels of our government are fully focused on the public interest and not a private interest.”

On January 28, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13770 requiring all incoming political appointees to sign an ethics pledge as a condition of their employment in the federal government. The Administration’s ethics pledge places certain restrictions on appointees’ participation in matters directly related to their former employers, clients, or matters on which the appointee lobbied prior to their appointment. 

The executive order also includes a provision allowing the President or his designee to issue a waiver to any individual appointee from any of the ethics pledge’s requirements, though there is no specific requirement that the waiver be issued prior to an appointee’s first day of employment. Waivers to the ethics pledge are maintained by the appointee’s employing agency. As of May 31, 2017, the Trump Administration has released information regarding 11 waivers issued within the White House and five waivers issued within executive agencies in response to a formal request for this information from the OGE. The Obama Administration issued 17 waivers within the White House and 66 government-wide over eight years, which remain available on the OGE website.

Text of the letter is copied below or available here:

August 1, 2017

The Honorable Mick Mulvaney

Director

Office of Management and Budget

725 17th Street NW

Washington, DC 20503

Dear Director Mulvaney:

The business of government should be open, transparent, and accountable to the American people.  We appreciate the commitments you have made in support of the executive branch ethics program, and we are writing to gain a better understanding of the future steps that will be taken to ensure that executive branch employees continue to adhere to the highest ethical standards.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which serves as the “supervising ethics office” for the executive branch,[1] invoked its clear authority to require “such reports from executive agencies as the Director deems necessary” through the issuance of a data call on April 28, 2017.[2]  The data call requested various records from executive agencies in furtherance of this supervisory duty, including waivers issued under two Executive Orders signed by President Obama and President Trump, both of which require former lobbyists and other appointees to sign an ethics pledge restricting their participation in particular matters as a condition of their government employment.[3]

As of the date of this letter, 135 of 136 federal agencies have responded to OGE’s data call, including your own.[4]  Several of these agencies produced responsive records in compliance with OGE’s statutory role in overseeing the integrity of the ethics program and addressing conflicts of interest, a role you acknowledged in your May 26, 2017 letter to former OGE Director Walter Shaub.[5]

Public disclosure of these records, including ethics pledge waivers, is essential to ensuring that ethical commitments are maintained so that the American people can be confident that government employees are working in their interest.  As such, compliance with the April 28 data call is necessary but not sufficient to meet this continuing obligation to provide the public with a full accounting of who is working in government on their behalf.

In response to previous congressional requests, OGE established a practice of publicly posting ethics pledge waivers on its website upon its receipt of these waivers from executive agencies.  Please ensure that the practice of providing ethics pledge waivers and recusals to OGE contemporaneously upon their issuance is continued.  We trust that you believe this standard is reasonable in that it allows the American people to better understand how those employed at the highest levels of our government are fully focused on the public interest and not a private interest.

We expect the Administration to continue to make these waivers publicly available as they are granted. Please confirm that any ethics pledge waivers granted in the future will be published on the White House website[6] and provided to the Office of Government Ethics at the time of their issuance. Further, we ask that you clarify the Administration’s waiver disclosure policy and explain how and when waivers will be made available to the public. We thank you for your attention to this matter and look forward to your prompt response.

cc: David J. Apol, Acting Director, U.S. Office of Government Ethics


[1] 5 U.S.C. app. § 109(18).

[2] 5 U.S.C. app. § 402(b)(10).

[3] Office of Government Ethics, Data Call for Certain Waivers and Authorizations (PA-17-02) (April 28, 2017) (online https://goo.gl/YuepDP); See also, Executive Order 13490, Executive Order 13770.

[4] Office of Government Ethics, Certain Waivers and Authorizations issued between May 1, 2016 – April 30, 2017 (online https://goo.gl/KVSx6q).

[5] Letter from Director Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget, to Director Walter Shaub, Office of Government Ethics (May 26, 2017).

[6] The White House, Ethics Pledge Waivers Released by the White House (online https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/disclosures/ethics-pledge-waivers).