January 13, 2020
The White House reportedly rehired a former aide to President Trump whose termination financial disclosure report ethics officials “closed [without] agency certification.” CREW previously filed a complaint with the Office of Government Ethics over issues with the aide’s termination report, but only recently discovered that White House ethics officials took the unusual step of closing their review of the report without certifying it.
Ethics officials certify financial disclosure reports when they believe that filers are “in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.” The decision White House ethics officials made to close the aide’s termination report without certification raises concerns that they were unable to conclude that he had met that standard.
The New York Times reported last month that the White House was expected to rehire former Special Assistant to the President and Personal Aide to the President John McEntee. Mr. McEntee officially returned to the White House on January 6, 2020, according to a Bloomberg News reporter. Shortly thereafter Mr. McEntee traveled to Ohio with President Trump on Air Force One.
Before leaving government in 2018, Mr. McEntee worked closely with President Trump as his body man during the campaign and at the White House. Mr. McEntee reportedly worked in an office directly next to the Oval Office and, according to a report by CNN, he “was one of [a] few aides who did not have their access to the President limited when John Kelly became the chief of staff.”
On March 12, 2018, however, Mr. McEntee was reportedly escorted out of the White House after his security clearance was denied. Public reporting at the time noted that the denial may have been related to online gambling and issues with taxes.
The day after Mr. McEntee was ousted from the White House, President Trump’s campaign announced that it had hired Mr. McEntee as a Senior Advisor, adding that he would begin working “in the coming days.” The Trump campaign made two payments to Mr. McEntee totaling $22,000 on March 23 and 30, 2018 for “payroll.” CREW found that Mr. McEntee, however, represented in his termination report that his employment at the White House extended until March 30, 2018, suggesting that Mr. McEntee may have received income from the Trump campaign while still employed by the White House. If that were the case, it would violate the Ethics in Government Act.
As a result, CREW filed a complaint with the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) that focused in part on issues illuminated in Mr. McEntee’s termination report, including his failure to report an employment agreement with and income from the Trump campaign. Mr. McEntee appears to have failed to report all non-government income he received during the reporting period, writing that “[o]n the advice of counsel, I am not providing further information regarding additional sources of non-investment or non-employment income.” In addition, CREW asked OGE to investigate whether Mr. McEntee violated the Ethics in Government Act’s prohibition on receiving outside earned income while employed in government.
CREW’s complaint was based on a version of Mr. McEntee’s termination report that was designated as “Pending Review,” according to the file name the White House gave the document.
After the New York Times reported that Mr. McEntee was expected to return to the White House, CREW again requested and received Mr. McEntee’s termination report. In the version the White House sent to CREW last month, however, its status was changed from “Pending Review”’ in the file name to “Closed [without] Agency Certification.” The report was otherwise identical to the version CREW had previously reviewed. On January 8, 2020, CREW again requested the report from the White House to determine whether ethics officials reopened Mr. McEntee’s termination report. As of January 13, CREW has not received a response to the latest request.
The change in the title suggests that White House ethics officials decided against certifying Mr. McEntee’s termination report, a move akin to when the Office of Government Ethics declines to certify financial disclosure reports. For example, OGE declined to certify Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s 2018 annual financial disclosure report after he violated his ethics agreement by failing to timely divest his BankUnited stock. Unlike OGE, however, the White House did not write on the document itself that it was declining to certify the report.
White House ethics officials’ decision to not certify Mr. McEntee’s termination report appears to be an aberration. The White House has routinely certified termination reports, even those filed well after officials leave their government jobs, so White House ethics officials’ decision to close Mr. McEntee’s report without certifying it is striking. Without further information from the White House, however, we cannot know why ethics officials refrained from certifying the report or if the decision was related to any of the issues CREW raised in its complaint to OGE.
CREW is aware of only one other case of White House ethics officials closing their review without certification. As with the case of Mr. McEntee, White House ethics officials appear to have closed their review of former Deputy Assistant to the President and Strategist Ira Greenstein’s termination report without certification. The signature line on Mr. Greenstein’s report where an agency ethics official is asked to attest that the “filer is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations” is blank. OGE General Counsel David Apol, however, wrote in the signature line for OGE that he was declining to certify Mr. Greenstein’s report. In an accompanying comment, Mr. Apol explained that he declined the report “due to unresolved potential conflicts.” Unlike Mr. Greenstein, however, Mr. McEntee’s financial disclosure reports do not appear to have been reviewed by OGE since no reports were made publicly available by the agency in response to requests from CREW.
The White House’s decision to close its review of Mr. McEntee’s report without further revisions or certification has left many of the concerns CREW raised in its complaint unresolved. In particular, the public has not received any information that would shed light on Mr. McEntee’s payments from the Trump campaign or any other non-government income he may have received while employed by the White House. In light of these issues, the White House owes it to the public to provide answers to these questions given Mr. McEntee’s return to government.