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As Trump Inquiries Flood Ethics Office, Director Looks To House For Action

Walter Shaub, director of the United States Office of Government Ethics.
Claire Harbage
Walter Shaub, director of the United States Office of Government Ethics.

Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub Jr. is calling on the chairman of House Oversight Committee to become more engaged in overseeing ethics questions in the Trump administration.

In an interview with NPR on Monday, Shaub said public inquiries and complaints involving Trump administration conflicts of interest and ethics have been inundating his tiny agency, which has only advisory power.

"We've even had a couple days where the volume was so huge it filled up the voicemail box, and we couldn't clear the calls as fast as they were coming in," Shaub said. His office is scrambling to keep pace with the workload.

But while citizens, journalists and Democratic lawmakers are pushing for investigations, Shaub suggested a similar level of energy is not coming from the House Oversight Committee, which has the power to investigate ethics questions, particularly those being raised now about reported secret ethics waivers for former lobbyists serving in the Trump administration.

Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, has "authority to investigate these things and compel responses, so hopefully we'll see some action from him," Shaub said.

"OGE, however, has no investigative authority, so we're limited as to what we can do if these waivers are not being released publicly," he said.

Chaffetz' office said he had no comment.

The New York Times, in collaboration with ProPublica, published a story on Saturday saying Trump has been filling the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants, and has been generously waiving ethics requirements without even posting the waiver information on the Government Ethics website.

But while Chaffetz has generally been quiet on Trump-related ethics issues, the public has been hammering OGE with questions and complaints.

How big is the jump in public contacts, such as calls, letters and emails? During the six months between October 2008 and March 2009, as the Obama presidency was taking shape, the OGE got 733 contacts.

During the October 2016 to March 2017 period, it got 39,105 contacts from citizens — an increase of 5,235 percent.

Comparing those same two time periods, the number of Freedom of Information Act requests — typically from journalists and public-interest groups — shot up to 280 from 39. That's an increase of 618 percent.

Shaub said that, for example, when a top Trump adviser recommended certain fashion lines on Fox & Friends, the public outcry and media interest rocketed up.

"When Kellyanne Conway had endorsed Ivanka Trump's product line, our phones rang off the hook, and they practically melted the system," he said. "This is a level of attention that we haven't seen before in terms of public interest."

Shaub said Trump is correct when he says, as he did back in January, that presidents technically are not covered by law from having conflicts of interest. "I have a no-conflict situation because I'm president," Trump said at the press conference. He added, "I didn't know about that until about three months ago, but it's a nice thing to have."

There are ethics rules that do apply to members of his administration, though. Those are the ones keeping Shaub's small staff busy, according to the director.

"When you get 39,000 calls coming into a 71-person agency, the best they can do is log the calls," he said.

The statistical analysis, comparing the Obama and Trump eras, have not previously been released. Shaub says his office is "understaffed right now," compared with the massively increased workload involving FOIA requests and the congressional requests, coming mostly from Democrats. "I've never seen anything like this," he said.

Still, the office is keeping up with the advisory work — trying to guide Trump appointees on ethics laws and suggesting solutions to conflicts of interest they may face. Other routine business, such as doing staff training or writing new guidelines, has been put on hold as the staff focuses on moving along Trump staffers, he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.

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