March 28, 2019
Seven Trump White House officials apparently violated ethics rules by failing to disclose agreements for future employment on their termination financial disclosure reports, according to a CREW complaint filed today. Despite the omissions, ethics officials within the White House certified all but one of these termination reports, calling into question the effectiveness of the White House ethics program. In fact, the person responsible for administering this rule at the White House may have himself violated it.
Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) and Office of Government Ethics (OGE) regulations require departing executive branch officials to disclose the date, terms of, and parties to any agreement or arrangement related to future employment that they entered into during the reporting period. The seven officials named in CREW’s complaint, however, failed to disclose employment plans that had appeared in news reports and press releases published before or just after they left the administration.
One of those officials, former Special Assistant and Personal Aide to the President John McEntee, may have also failed to report earned outside income he likely received prior to his termination from the White House despite EIGA and OGE regulations requiring its disclosure. The Trump campaign announced that it had hired McEntee on March 13, 2018. McEntee then received payments totaling $22,000 from the Trump campaign for “payroll” on March 23 and March 30. While news outlets reported that Mr. McEntee was ousted from the White House due to security clearance issues on March 12, he indicated on his termination report that his employment with the White House extended through March 30. He did not, however, disclose either the payments or his affiliation with the Trump campaign on his termination report. In addition to the disclosure issue, because Mr. McEntee was still apparently employed by the White House when those payments were made, he may have been prohibited from accepting them.
Former Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Political Affairs William Stepien also made plans to join the campaign before he left the White House but did not disclose them on his termination report.
Former Assistant to the President and Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, who is returning to the White House this month to serve as Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff, also apparently failed to disclose employment agreements on his termination report. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center and Guidepost Strategies each announced that they had hired Short on July 12, 2018, more than a week before he left his job at the White House, but neither employer was disclosed on his termination report.
The White House’s former Designated Agency Ethics Official (“DAEO”) Stefan Passantino may have also omitted an employment agreement from his termination report. According to that report, Passantino’s last day working at the White House was August 31, 2018. Just two business days later, on September 5, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP announced that Mr. Passantino had joined the firm, where he is now a partner. Passantino did not disclose any employment agreements on his termination report, however.
While it is possible that Passantino did not enter into an agreement for future employment with Michael Best & Friedrich until after he left the White House, the very close proximity between his last day at the White House and the announcement of his hiring raises the question of when he reached an agreement with the firm.
Whether Passantino failed to disclose his employment plans or not, his role as the White House DAEO raises concerns about the White House ethics program. In that position, Passantino was responsible for the ethics and financial disclosure programs in the Trump White House. Yet under his watch, at least five other officials may have failed to disclose agreements for future employment on their termination reports, and Passantino certified three of those filings himself.
News reports announcing post-administration jobs for former Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation Katie Walsh, former Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council Paul Winfree, and Assistant to the President for Intragovernmental and Technology Initiatives Reed Cordish preceded their departures from the White House. Though they failed to disclose employment agreements associated with those jobs on their termination reports, Passantino certified all three of them.
Even more concerning is that the DAEO position at the White House may have remained vacant for over six months after Passantino left the administration in August 2018. Not until March 20, 2019 did OGE identify Senior Associate Counsel to the President Scott Gast as the White House DAEO in an update to its DAEO list. Mr. Gast certified three of the termination reports discussed in CREW’s complaint, including that of Mr. Passantino. The apparent delay in filling the position suggests that the White House is largely disinterested in a robust ethics program.
In addition, the White House Counsel’s Office has thwarted external oversight that might address these problems. According to a Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) report issued last week, GAO was unable to review the White House ethics program because the White House Counsel’s Office failed to respond to GAO’s requests for information.
The issues facing the White House ethics program are systemic and White House ethics officials appear to be ill-equipped to address the program’s shortcomings. While CREW was able to identify several officials who appear to have skirted this disclosure requirement by reviewing public information, it is possible that even more administration officials had agreements for future employment upon leaving government that were not made public. As such, the White House Counsel’s Office must cooperate with external watchdogs such as GAO and OGE in order to improve efficacy and accountability in the White House ethics program.