Ethics director calls for an open meeting about Trump’s divestiture plans

The director of the Office of Government Ethics is asking the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold a public hearing so he can answer questions about his organization’s role.

Walter Shaub, the director of OGE, wrote to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the committee, on Jan. 16 saying the need for transparency and public education is critical to ensure citizens know how his agency oversees and guards against executive branch ethics issues.

Shaub’s letter comes five days after Chaffetz wrote to OGE asking for a transcribed, closed-door meeting to discuss the agency’s actions in December when it posted comments on Twitter about President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to divest from his businesses.

The committee amended the request a few days later to include the chairman and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member, and their staffs to have a private meeting.

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“In recent weeks, I have spoken publicly about my concerns about the President-elect’s current plan to not divest — as well as to applaud some of his nominees’ ethics agreements, such as Rex Tillerson’s,” Shaub wrote. “My remarks were intended to educate the public about the shortcomings of the President-elect’s current plan and made in the hopes of persuading him to make adjustments that will resolve his conflicts of interest. I believe these remarks to be in line with OGE’s mission.”

Shaub said OGE has “received an unprecedented volume of telephone calls, emails, and letters from members of the public related to our executive branch ethics program. As these communications make clear, the public wants to understand conflicts of interest in government and the role that OGE plays in preventing conflicts from hindering effective governance.”

He added that having a public meeting with the committee would further OGE’s goals of ensuring transparency to government ethics.

“Although I am willing to attend a private meeting if you insist, I am hopeful that you will agree that a public meeting is preferable. If a different date would allow for a public meeting, I would be happy to discuss alternative dates with you or your staff,” Shaub wrote.

Cummings said on Jan. 15 that he believes Chaffetz and incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are coordinating their “attacks” on Shaub and OGE.

“I believe it is imperative that Director Shaub be permitted to testify in public — before the American people — to avoid any perception that he is being unfairly targeted behind closed doors for expressing his views,” Cummings wrote to Chaffetz on Jan. 12. “Protecting those who speak truth to power is one of this committee’s core values and purposes, and we should fully support government officials charged with increasing transparency and ethical governance when they provide independent advice that is based on the law.”

OGE has been outspoken about Trump’s plans. In December, the agency said a blind trust run by the President-elect’s children wouldn’t suffice, and may violate federal ethics rules.

OGE recently asked for input from the public on how the criminal conflict of interest prohibition might apply to certain executive branch employees who have interests in discretionary trusts.

Additionally, earlier in January, a group of Democrats in the House and Senate introduced a new bill that would require the president, vice president, their spouses and their children to disclose and divest any potential financial conflicts of interest and put those assets in a blind trust. The Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act would require that the president put those investments in a blind trust.