CONTACT: Jordan Libowitz
202-408-5565 | [email protected]
Washington—Members of Jared Kushner’s shadow coronavirus task force appear to have violated federal conflicts of interest and transparency laws, according to a letter sent by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) today to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). The task force appears to be operating with little to no oversight or transparency, leaving the public in the dark about its actions. Its members, drawn from private industries with ties to the administration, have taken over critical government functions and wield power over vast sums of money.
While the Trump administration’s official coronavirus response efforts are being spearheaded by Vice President Pence, the president tasked Kushner with assembling a team that consists largely of representatives from private industries, including a former college roommate of Kushner’s. Despite little information publicly being known about the team Kushner has assembled, many members of Kushner’s shadow task force are private sector individuals with massive financial interests that likely pose serious conflicts of interest and have yet to be fully disclosed to the public.
“Jared Kushner’s task force appears to be playing a critical role in our government’s response to a catastrophic pandemic with literally life or death consequences, and yet Americans have no way to know whether task force members are acting in our interest or their own,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “We need task force members to be disclosing their interests and avoiding conflicts of interest, rather than acting in secret with no oversight.”
Given the roles they have assumed and the authority they are exercising, the members of the task force appear to be special government employees (SGEs), which are defined as an “officer or employee of the executive or legislative branch of the United States Government . . . who is retained, designated, appointed, or employed to perform, with or without compensation.” SGEs are considered to be government employees for purposes of the conflict of interest laws and therefore subject to a variety of disclosure and conflict of interest statutes. These laws are designed to prevent SGEs from allowing their personal interests to affect official actions they take on behalf of the government. There is no indication, however, that Kushner’s shadow task force has complied with these disclosure and conflict of interest requirements.
The actions of the task force also raise questions about whether the members were appointed under the authority of the Defense Production Act (DPA). DPA authorizes the president to consult with industry, business, and other representatives to aid the national defense through the mechanism of “voluntary agreements” and to establish “such advisory committees as he determines are necessary.” But the White House has not complied with the procedural requirements of the DPA, such as notice of the members’ appointment in the Federal Register, and the requirement that the task force be overseen by someone who was appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
“During an unprecedented global pandemic such as this, we recognize the need for the government to partner with the private sector, but this does not absolve government employees from complying with laws meant to protect us,” said Bookbinder. “Allowing private citizens and businesses to shape public policy without any government oversight is all but asking for corruption and abuse and not the way our government should operate.”