Ethics issues pile up for Trump Cabinet officials

Ethics issues pile up for Trump Cabinet officials
© Getty

Ethical controversies involving President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE’s Cabinet officials are piling up and becoming a major headache for the White House. 

Reports of administration officials taking lavish trips, traveling on private jets, accepting gifts and buying expensive furniture have raised deep concerns among outside groups, Democrats and even some Republicans about the way taxpayer money is being spent under the new administration.

Trump himself has drawn ire for refusing to divest his business interests and taking frequent weekend trips on Air Force One to his private resort in Palm Beach, Fla.

“Some of the problem is the result of President Trump’s pledge to do things differently in Washington,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. 

“He has brought people into public service that are new to government and what we’re seeing is some of the differences between public service and what might be acceptable in the business world. Unfortunately that can be a recipe for waste and abuse and the taxpayer ends up holding the bill.”

At least one Cabinet official has already been forced to resign over his use of taxpayer funds.

In September, former Georgia Rep. Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceOvernight Health Care: CEO of largest private health insurer slams 'Medicare for All' plans | Dem bill targets youth tobacco use | CVS fined over fake painkiller prescriptions | Trump, first lady to discuss opioid crisis at summit HHS inspector general stepping down from watchdog role Ex-GOP lawmaker Handel to run for her former Georgia seat in 2020 MORE (R) stepped down from his post as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary after it was revealed he was using private jets for official business at taxpayers’ expense, at a cost of more than $1 million. Price reimbursed the government for a little over $51,000 for his seat on the planes.

The spotlight is now on Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHUD drafting rule to require carbon monoxide detectors in public housing Treasury offers new guidance on opportunity zones HUD chief Carson leaves Dem lawmaker exasperated with answer on LGBT protections MORE after it was reported he ordered a $31,000 dining room set for his office late last year.

Here’s a look at who’s in hot water.

Ben Carson 

The HUD secretary said on Thursday he has directed his staff to cancel the order for the $31,000 dinning room set and that he was just “as surprised as anyone” to find out about the purchase.

A HUD spokesman told The New York Times Carson didn’t know the table had been purchased and wants to be “as fiscally prudent as possible with the taxpayers’ money.” 

Helen Foster, a senior career official at HUD, said in media reports that she was replaced after refusing an order from the then-acting secretary to find a way around a $5,000 legal limit set for office redecorating.

ADVERTISEMENT

It isn’t the first controversy Carson has faced as secretary. 

The Washington Post reported in January that Carson allowed his son to help organize and participate in an agency “listening tour,” despite department lawyers warning him that it could violate ethics rules. 

Citing current and former HUD officials, the Post reported that Carson’s wife, son and daughter-in-law have all attended official HUD meetings. The department’s inspector general is reportedly investigating.

Carson said the media is smearing his family.

"This week, my family and I have been under attack by the media questioning our integrity and ethics. I have openly asked for an independent investigation to rest these unfounded biases," he said in a statement.

David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinTrump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? It’s time to end the scare tactics and get to work for our veterans MORE

The Veteran Affairs (VA) secretary has been struggling with the fallout over a July trip to Europe. 

A VA inspector general investigation found he misused government resources by not only scheduling significant personal time to sightsee while abroad, but accepting tickets to the Wimbledon tennis championships for himself and his wife.  

The report said Shulkin misled investigators into believing the tickets were from a friend and therefore qualified for the “personal friendship” exception to the rule prohibiting government officials from accepting gifts. The report also found that Shulkin’s chief of staff had changed an official email to get government approval for his wife’s airfare.

Shulkin last month told USA Today that he had reimbursed the government $4,312 for the cost of his wife’s flights and would reimburse the adviser to the Invictus Games for the Wimbledon tickets. 

“I do recognize the optics of this are not good,” Shulkin said in testimony to Congress. “I do accept responsibility for that, but I do believe it’s important the United States continues its work with its allied countries.” 

Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard Coffman20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Denver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (Colo.), a Republican who could face a tough reelection race next year, is calling for Shulkin’s resignation. 

In a letter to Trump this week, Coffman said Shulkin “clearly lacks the moral authority to lead the VA” and the “integrity expected” of a Cabinet official. 

“Inevitably, employees throughout the VA will consider the example set by Secretary Shulkin as a ‘green light’ to avoid accountability, to take opportunities for personal enrichment, or other violations of laws, regulations, and their duties,” he said.

Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Flint residents can sue EPA over water crisis | Environmentalists see victory with Green New Deal blitz | March global temperatures were second hottest on record | EPA told to make final decision on controversial pesticide Court orders EPA to make final decision on banning controversial pesticide Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt registers as lobbyist in Indiana MORE

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) administrator is being scrutinized over reports that he routinely flies first or business class at taxpayers’ expense.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Democrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Democrats seize on Mueller-Barr friction MORE (R-S.C.) asked Pruitt to submit a detailed account of his flights after The Washington Post reported dozens of first class trips, including one from Washington to New York that cost $1,641.53.

Pruitt has also been asked to hand over all documents showing agency authorization of the non-coach accommodations. Gowdy said “blanket” authorization to fly first class is prohibited unless the traveler has an up-to-date documented disability or special need.

Gowdy has given Pruitt until 5 p.m. on March 6 to respond to his request.

Pruitt has defended his flights, saying his accommodations were determined entirely by his security detail. On Thursday he told CBS News’s “The Takeout" podcast the quantity, quality and types of security threats he's faced is unprecedented.  

Pruitt said he was flying coach until a threat assessment showed the best way to protect him was for him to sit in a place where he could quickly leave if a threat arose, but that he's told his security to find a different way to handle threats. 

"I've instructed those same individuals to accommodate those security threats in alternate ways, up to and including flying coach going forward," he said. "There’s a change coming." 

Pruitt said his next flight will be coach.  

Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Gillibrand offers bill to ban pesticide from school lunches | Interior secretary met tribal lawyer tied to Zinke casino dispute | Critics say EPA rule could reintroduce asbestos use Interior secretary met with tribal lawyer attached to Zinke casino dispute Zinke joins board of small gold mining company MORE

The Interior secretary is another Cabinet official who has been feeling the heat over his travel costs and arrangements.  

Members of Congress have pressed Zinke about his use of charter planes — one trip cost $12,000 — as well his use of military and government aircrafts. 

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington shared documents it obtained with CNN that said Zinke's office was told in October that he was on pace to be $200,000 over budget for travel. Zinke’s office has denied that accusation, saying there is no firm budget specifically for travel.

Zinke is also being investigated by watchdogs for potentially violating the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from using their positions for political purposes, after speaking to the Golden Knights, an NHL team.

The team’s owner, Fidelity National Financial Chairman Bill Foley, personally donated to Zinke’s reelection bid for a Montana House seat in 2013 and 2014. 

And CNN reported this week that Zinke is now being questioned for meeting with wealthy Republican donors during a trip to Texas in September to speak at an annual gun retreat.

Interior has said that Zinke follows all agency procedures for his travel and has his trips approved by the department’s ethics office.

Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: House Dem says marijuana banking bill will get vote in spring | Buttigieg joins striking Stop & Shop workers | US home construction slips in March | Uber gets B investment for self-driving cars Former Sears holding company sues ex-CEO, Mnuchin and others over 'asset stripping' On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost MORE

The Treasury secretary and his wife, Louise Linton, created controversy when they took a government plane to Fort Knox in August on the day of the solar eclipse. 

Linton was slammed by critics for posting a photo of herself exiting the jet on Instagram and naming in hashtags the luxury fashion designers she was wearing.

The post came amid backlash over reports that Mnuchin had requested to use the government plane for the couple’s honeymoon earlier that year.

Mnuchin said he only explored the idea to ensure he could perform his duties while abroad. 

“Let me be clear. I’m very sensitive to the use of government funds. I’ve never asked the government to pay for my personal travel,” he said.

In a tweet, Mnuchin said he didn't use the government plane on his honeymoon, but if he had he would have paid for it himself.