June 2 (UPI) — The Office of Government Ethics is asking the White House to clarify a number of procedural waivers it granted to staffers — amid questions about whether President Donald Trump‘s administration may have violated federal ethics rules.
OGE Director Walter Shaub, Jr., said Friday his office will seek more information about 10 of the 14 conflict of interest waivers the White House disclosed this week that enabled executive staff members to interact with former employers and clients after they took office.
The OGE is interested in the 10 waivers because they are undated and unsigned, meaning they could have been issued retroactively and not approved beforehand by White House lawyers.
“I am issuing this memorandum retroactive to January 20, 2017,” White House counsel wrote in one of the waivers.
“There’s no such thing as a retroactive waiver,” Shaub said in a report by The New York Times. “If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.”
Among the White House’s 14 ethics waivers was a blanket release that permitted appointees to communicate with news organizations about policy matters after Trump took office — which critics say could be an after-the-fact effort to clear senior adviser and former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon of interactions he purportedly had with his former outlet after January 20.
Trump previously had Bannon sign an ethics pledge that barred him from interacting with Breitbart for two years. Other administration members also signed the pledge.
Shaub said any prohibited activity by executive staffers or appointees without required prior approval — even if permission is granted later — is still a violation.
“Issuing a waiver after the fact won’t fix the problem,” he said.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday it’s up to Trump to enforce his ethics pledge.
“He is the ultimate decider on that,” he said at his news briefing Friday. “Several individuals on staff had previously worked for media organizations, and in order to continue having those discussions and advancing the president’s agenda and priorities, it was important to make sure that all individuals had the opportunity to be able to speak to the media about what the president was doing.”
The ethics office is seeking the clarification as part of a report it’s compiling that details all conflict of interest waivers issued by the federal government over the past year.
The White House disclosed the waivers late Wednesday after budget director Mick Mulvaney unsuccessfully asked the OGE to suspend inquiries about the waivers. The 14 releases were given for 17 Trump appointees, including four lobbyists. Adviser Kellyanne Conway, who was the focus of an ethics review earlier this year, was among those given an undated and unsigned waiver.
“A waiver is given in anticipation of somebody having to do something that otherwise might cross an ethical line,” former acting OGE chief Don Fox said. “If you don’t have affirmative authority to do something, without having a waiver in place, then you have violated something.”