April 29, 2019
New documents obtained by CREW via a Freedom of Information Act request show that President Donald Trump waited more than six months to fill the top ethics post at the White House after Stefan Passantino left the job on August 31, 2018. President Trump’s lengthy delay in filling a crucial White House ethics position provides yet another example of President Trump’s preference to leave important posts vacant at the expense of government efficiency and accountability.
On March 27, 2019, CREW requested all designations the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) received from the White House since January 2017 appointing a Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO) or an Alternate DAEO. The responsive documents show that after Passantino left the administration on August 31, 2018, President Trump did not fill the White House DAEO position until March 12, 2019, when he appointed Senior Counsel to the President and then-Alternate DAEO Scott Gast to the post.
DAEOs perform crucial functions at the White House. As President Trump noted in his March 2019 letter appointing Gast, the DAEO is responsible for “coordinat[ing] and manag[ing] the ethics program” for the White House. In addition, DAEOs are responsible for the White House’s financial disclosure program, whose mission is to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest among White House employees.
President Trump’s failure to promptly appoint a new DAEO is consistent with his preference to leave important government positions vacant. Indeed, the president has allowed several agency Inspector General positions to remain vacant for the entire duration of his presidency. Vacancies, however, undermine the authority of acting officials and weaken morale in government offices.
The six-month vacancy thus may be reflective of both the president’s indifference to government ethics as well as the general weakness of the White House ethics program. Last month, CREW filed a complaint with OGE requesting that it review whether the White House is properly administering its ethics program after CREW identified significant issues with the termination financial disclosure reports of seven former White House officials.
Despite its deficiencies, President Trump’s White House ethics program has largely escaped external oversight. Passantino, the White House DAEO at the time, rebuffed OGE despite the requirement that DAEOs must be “responsive to the [OGE] Director’s requests for documents and information related to the ethics program.” As OGE noted in a September 2017 report, Passantino did not respond to its data call requesting copies of White House waivers and authorizations. OGE also found Passantino’s initial response to its follow-up request to be unresponsive. Ultimately, Passantino responded to some, but not all, of OGE’s questions. Passantino now works in the private sector representing the Trump Organization.
The White House Counsel’s Office similarly thwarted the Government Accountability Office’s oversight efforts by failing to respond to GAO’s requests for information about the White House ethics program.
President Trump’s disregard for government ethics has resulted in a deficient White House ethics program. The president’s decision to leave the White House without a DAEO for six months made an already weak ethics program even more vulnerable. And while the White House now has a permanent DAEO, there is little reason to believe that Gast has the authority to impose large-scale changes on an ethics program President Trump apparently prefers institutionally weak.