Ethics Office Asks About White House Response on Conway

By Kenneth P. Doyle

The Office of Government Ethics has asked the White House to determine by Feb. 28 whether to investigate and take disciplinary action against Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to President Donald Trump, for promoting the commercial products of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

OGE cautioned in a new letter, however, that it has no authority on its own to discipline Conway if the White House doesn’t act. No specific disciplinary action has been announced against Conway, who spoke on television after Trump tweeted criticism of the Nordstrom department store chain for dropping Ivanka Trump’s product line.

The ethics office letter, signed by OGE director Walter Shaub, responded to a call from Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) for the OGE to act on Conway’s comments. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said Conway appeared to violate rules barring government officials from promoting commercial products.

Republicans Reluctant to Fault Trump

The House committee has more authority than OGE to press the White House to act on Conway, the letter noted.

“Unlike the Committee, OGE cannot issue subpoenas, question witnesses, compel the production of documents, or take action against individuals who refuse to cooperate,” it said.

Congressional Republicans, including Chaffetz, the Oversight Committee chairman, have been reluctant to criticize Trump regarding ethics issues raised by his and his family’s business interests. The letter Chaffetz signed to OGE on Feb. 10 was among the first actions by a leading congressional Republican suggesting that ethics allegations involving Trump and his administration should be pursued.

OGE’s Feb. 13 response letter to Chaffetz and Cummings noted that the ethics office has limited enforcement powers under the law and can only recommend disciplinary action to other agencies. Even a recommendation that the White House discipline of Conway would require a formal process that could take until April of May to complete, the letter said. If that process was completed, the ethics office said, its recommendations still might be ignored.

“OGE is also authorized to notify the President if the agency fails to take appropriate disciplinary action,” the letter said. “However, such notice would be ineffective in this case because any decision not to take disciplinary action will have been made by the President.”

OGE Contacted White House

OGE also revealed that it had contacted the White House about the Conway matter even before it received the letter from Chaffetz and Cummings calling for action.

The ethics office said in a Feb. 13 letter to Stefan Passantino, the deputy counsel to the president and and designated agency ethics official for the White House, that Passantino was called by OGE officials on Feb. 9, the day of Conway’s televised comments about Ivanka Trump.

The letter noted that although Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said during a a press conference that Conway was “counseled” about her comments, “OGE has not yet received notification of any disciplinary or other corrective action against Ms. Conway.”

The letter to Passantino, signed by Shaub, OGE’s director, recounted reports of Conway’s interview with Fox News following reports that Ivanka Trump’s clothing line was dropped by Nordstrom and Trump criticism’s of Nordstrom on Twitter. Conway urged TV viewers to buy Ivanka Trump’s products, adding: “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody.”

“These facts, if true, would establish a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position,” Shaub’s letter to Passantino said. He noted that OGE’s regulation on misuse of position offers as an example the hypothetical case of a Presidential appointee appearing in a television commercial to promote a product and said Conway’s actions “track that example almost exactly.”

Shaub recommended that “the White House investigate Ms. Conway’s actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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