Washington—The Department of Justice should investigate multiple former Trump administration political appointees for potentially violating an ethics and transparency law after leaving their positions, rather than focusing only on a critic of the president, according to a complaint sent today by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the DOJ. Despite several other documented instances of former appointees failing to file termination reports, as required by the Ethics in Government Act, the Trump administration has only acted to enforce EIGA against Omarosa Manigault Newman, who has been vocal in speaking out against President Trump since leaving the administration.
The Ethics in Government Act requires employees to file “termination” public financial disclosure reports at the end of their government employment, which can expose government officials’ conflicts of interest. While multiple appointees apparently failed to comply with EIGA, they have not faced any sort of legal action. CREW has found evidence of at least seven former federal agency employees who apparently failed to comply with the law, and there is no indication that their agencies referred these individuals to DOJ to investigate any wrongdoing. They include former State Department official Sean Lawler, who faced discrimination and harassment investigations into his conduct at the time of his departure. DOJ does not need a referral to begin an investigation, and much of the evidence in CREW’s complaint came from publicly available information and reports.
“Failing to investigate all violators allows for officials to bypass transparency laws and creates two entirely different justice systems -- one that rewards the president’s allies and one that punishes dissenters.”
However, according to public documents, Manigault Newman is the only appointee to have faced any sort of EIGA enforcement action. Recent reports suggest that Manigault Newman’s criticism of the president, both publicly and in her book, played a role in the government’s decision to retaliate and penalize solely her.
“President Trump and senior officials in the Trump administration have always acted as if ethics laws do not apply to them, so it comes as no surprise that loyalists are not being held to the important requirements in key ethics and transparency laws,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “These appointees’ failure to file a final report that could indicate whether they have conflicts of interest will continue to erode the public’s faith that government officials are acting in the best interests of the American people, rather than their own financial interests. Failing to investigate all violators allows for officials to bypass transparency laws and creates two entirely different justice systems — one that rewards the president’s allies and one that punishes dissenters.”
Termination reports disclose “a departing official’s future employment arrangements, allowing ethics officials to tailor any necessary follow-up post-employment counseling and to verify a departing official’s government actions complied with federal conflict of interest laws.” These reports must be filed within 30 days of leaving federal service, unless the employee served less than 60 days or transferred to another covered position within 30 days. The knowing and willful failure to file these reports can result in civil or criminal penalties.
“In some cases, there is evidence that these failures to file termination reports were knowing and willful, adding to the urgency that the DOJ quickly move to investigate any potential wrongdoing,” said Bookbinder. “For an administration that often pays lip service to law and order, its refusal to investigate political appointees perceived as loyal who may have broken the law is yet another slap at the ideals of ethical government and equal treatment.”
Update: CREW requested that DOJ investigate one former State Department appointee, Mari Stull, based in part on State’s repeated confirmation that it had not received a termination report from her. The day after CREW filed its complaint, State notified CREW that it was “able to obtain a termination report on Ms. Stull,” dated July 30, 2019. State did not explain why this report was not provided earlier in response to CREW’s requests or why it confirmed to CREW it had received no termination report from Ms. Stull. Based on this new information, CREW sent a supplemental letter to DOJ withdrawing its request to investigate Ms. Stull.