May 10, 2019
Update: Less than a week after CREW’s post, OGE issued its annual program advisory discussing the upcoming financial disclosure filing cycle. Unlike previous such advisories, the section covering the year-end status letters does not say that the letters will include information about financial disclosure reports OGE declined to certify during the filing cycle. The program advisory adds that OGE will provide additional information about the letters later in the 2019 cycle
Documents obtained by CREW via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) broke with one of its own program advisories by failing to mention the financial disclosure reports it declined to certify in year-end status letters sent to the Commerce Department, the Treasury Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In those letters, OGE Director Emory Rounds thanked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler for “making annual financial disclosure a priority” and congratulated their agencies for “successfully complet[ing] the 2018 filing cycle” even though OGE made the exceedingly rare decision to decline to certify 2018 annual financial disclosure reports filed by Mnuchin, Ross, and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt due to ethics concerns.
Consistent with the past several years, OGE issued a program advisory on April 10, 2018 detailing what information OGE would include in the year-end status letters for the 2018 financial disclosure cycle. The program advisory explained that year-end status letters typically inform agency heads that their respective agencies “successfully completed the annual filing cycle.” The letters would note, however, if (1) the agency did not provide OGE with all annual financial disclosure reports due to OGE by a certain date, (2) the agency failed to respond “to any outstanding requests for information,” or (3) OGE declined to certify any agency employees’ financial disclosure reports. In addition, “the year-end status letters will normally name the filers whose reports are at issue.”
Anticipating that OGE would adhere to its own program advisory, CREW filed a FOIA request for the year-end status letters. In its response to the request, however, OGE said that it “sent the same letter to all agencies” regarding the 2018 filing cycle. As a result, we do not know if OGE declined to certify additional financial disclosure reports during the 2018 filing cycle or whether any agencies failed to send all required financial disclosure reports to OGE on time or respond to its requests for additional information.
OGE’s failure to follow its own program advisory has thus undermined the oversight function the year-end status letters were designed to perform.
OGE began sending year-end status letters in 2015 to hold agencies accountable by calling out agencies and officials who fell short of OGE’s standards. Specifically, in 2015 OGE explained that it decided to include the names of officials whose financial disclosure reports OGE had not certified because “[a]n agency’s failure to collect and review [Presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed] officials’ reports, resolve all conflicts of interest, and obtain OGE’s certification in a timely manner places filers at risk of violating criminal conflicts of interest laws.” OGE added that this failure ultimately “diminishes the credibility of the ethics program and undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of the government’s operations.”
The year-end status letters were largely successful in this regard. Since OGE began sending the letters, the timeliness with which agencies reviewed and sent financial disclosure reports to OGE improved markedly.
As a result, sending the same year-end status letter to each agency even when OGE declined to certify at least three financial disclosure reports is incongruous with OGE’s program advisory and the purpose of the letters. The year-end status letters covering the 2018 filing cycle lack any oversight function. Rather, they paper over well-documented ethics issues facing the Trump administration and possibly keep others hidden from public and Congressional scrutiny.