Watchdog groups fear for ethics office after resignation

The resignation of Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Director Walter Shaub is setting off alarm bells among watchdog groups, who fear the integrity of the agency’s ethics work is now at risk.

Several nonprofits — and the lead Democrat on the House Oversight Committee — issued statements Thursday expressing concern that there may not be enough pressure to follow ethics rules without a permanent director in place. 

“This resignation, unfortunately, may weaken the work of a crucial federal agency that has been overwhelmed by ethics requests from the public and addressing the complex finances and associated conflicts from Trump’s wealthy nominees,” said Alexander Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation. 

Shaub’s five-year term was set to end in January 2018, but he said Thursday that he would be leaving the agency on July 19 to join the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that specializes in political and election law issues.

President Trump will now decide whether to appoint a permanent director to the agency or leave the position vacant. OGE Chief of Staff Shelley Finlayson is in line to serve as acting director, but rules prohibit her from taking over as director.

“His resignation places the integrity of the OGE in doubt. President Donald Trump now has the opportunity to select the next head of the ethics agency,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. 

“This is yet another chance for Trump to fulfill his pledge to drain the swamp, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we have very little confidence that he will do so,” Holman said, adding that the public should demand, along with watchdog groups, that he make a strong choice for the post.  

The OGE, with Shaub at the helm, clashed with the Trump administration even before the president took office.

On Jan. 11, a lawyer for Trump unveiled how the president would structure his businesses after he stepped into the Oval Office. Rather than completely divesting, Trump would maintain connections to his business empire — though only be permitted limited access to information about it.

Shaub panned the arrangement, calling it “wholly inadequate” in resolving any potential conflicts of interest.

“As we said in January, President Trump’s transparency theater of disclosure failed to address the unprecedented conflicts of interest he brought to the White House,” said Howard, of the Sunlight Foundation, in a statement. “Shaub’s resignation should be taken as a bat signal to Members of Congress who, despite reams of evidence of unresolved conflicts, have been far too reticent to oversee ethics in government or threats to transparency under the Trump administration.” 

Schaub has served in the OGE under both Republican and Democratic presidents, starting his tenure during the George W. Bush administration. He became director under former President Obama. 

He told The Washington Post that no one in the Trump administration pressured him to leave his position early.  But, “it’s clear that there isn’t more I could accomplish,” he told the publication.

While Shaub has his supporters, others accuse him of grandstanding for his own benefit.

“No one ever heard of the Office of Government Ethics pre-Trump,” Howard Schweitzer, a former ethics official in the Bush administration, said in an emailed statement.

“Prior to 2016 that office always was completely non-political. While Washington is a political town sometimes you succeed and gain your power by staying below the political radar. The now former director clearly sought to leverage Trump to raise his own profile,” he continued. “He succeeded but to the long term detriment of the office.” 

In his statement about joining the Campaign Legal Center, Shaub said the federal ethics program needs improving, adding that he plans to push for changes once he’s outside of government. 

The OGE does not have any ability or authority to enforce ethics rules, but merely provide guidance for federal government employees. There are ethics officials in each agency and the White House responsible for fielding OGE referrals and deciding whether to act on them.

Other groups, including the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), on Thursday urged lawmakers to strengthen the laws around conflicts of interest.

“POGO agrees with Walt’s assessment that current ethics program ‘needs to be stronger than it is’ and we will continue push Congress to make the changes necessary for the OGE to both investigate and enforce compliance with the ethic laws,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director.

Historically, lawmakers have only passed ethics reform in the wake of a scandal, and even those laws were often difficult to pass.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said the committee’s GOP leadership should hold hearings about ethics reform. 

“I urge Chairman [Trey] Gowdy [R, S.C.] to invite Director Shaub to testify before our Committee about the lessons he has learned while leading OGE, including the need to implement substantive reforms to ensure government officials can never put private gain above the public that they serve,” he said.

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