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White House To Provide Ethics Agency With Info On Waivers For Ex-Lobbyists

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

The Trump administration agreed late Friday to disclose records regarding former lobbyists it has hired, and the ethics rules it has waived for them. The move defuses a brewing conflict between the White House and one of Washington's smallest agencies, the tiny, 71-worker Office of Government Ethics.

OGE Director Walter Shaub Jr. had set a deadline of June 1 — next Thursday — for federal agencies to send OGE copies of their ethics waivers. The White House challenged OGE's legal authority to act, and Shaub fired back with his own analysis, backed up by 300 pages of supporting documents.

A White House spokeswoman said it would soon disclose its waivers, the New York Times reported Friday. Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, wrote to Shaub that he had never sought to impede OGE.

Shaub's understated response: "I really appreciated receiving Director Mulvaney's letter, and I'm glad things are back on track."

The confrontation — not the first between the administration and OGE — began in late April, when Shaub called on the 135 top ethics officers across the federal bureaucracy to send in all the ethics waivers issued for their agencies.

"In my experience it's pretty unusual to have this kind of open conflict," said David Lewis, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, in an interview before the White House agreed to release the waivers.

"Most presidents would work very hard to keep this out of the news, because no president would want the perception that there were conflicts of interest in government," he said.

The waivers allow presidential appointees to deal with issues on which they previously lobbied for clients. Without a waiver, an appointee would be restricted by President Trump's executive order on ethics, which bars such lobbying for the first two years.

The Obama administration had a similar policy, and routinely posted the ethics waivers on the White House website. In contrast, the Trump administration has kept them secret.

The OGE and the Trump White House have argued on a series of issues, starting with the president's decision not to divest his hundreds of businesses.

Don Fox, a former OGE director, said it's too soon to tell how the White House decision to cooperate with Shaub's collecting of ethics waivers will affect OGE's standing.

"As a former senior OGE official, it gives me some comfort that they're showing some respect and some deference to the agency," he said.

But Fred Wertheimer, of the watchdog group Democracy 21, suggested that the fight was really about the president's campaign promise to "drain the swamp" of Washington lobbying, influence and money.

"It looks like this was a pure effort to hide information from the public about the number of lobbyists they were hiring," he said, "because it was in conflict with what President Trump said throughout his campaign."

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

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