Ethics issues pile up for Trump Cabinet officials

Ethics issues pile up for Trump Cabinet officials
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Ethical controversies involving President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump 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 PricePress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank 'I alone can fix it,' Trump said, but has he? Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently 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 CarsonCarson's affordable housing idea drawing undue flak Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules it says are too lax 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.

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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 ShulkinPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Senior Trump administration official to leave post next week Trump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report 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 CoffmanBottom Line Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform 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 PruittEnvironmentalists renew bid to overturn EPA policy barring scientists from advisory panels Six states sue EPA over pesticide tied to brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules 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 GowdyRising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief Cummings announces expansion of Oversight panel's White House personal email probe, citing stonewalling Pelosi says it's up to GOP to address sexual assault allegation against Trump 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 ZinkeNew policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press Overnight Energy: EPA proposes scrapping limits on coal plant waste | Appointee overseeing federal lands once advocated selling them | EPA lifts Obama-era block on controversial mine Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them 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 MnuchinPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Trump phoned bank CEOs as stock market plunged Wednesday: report The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy 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.