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Chaffetz Accused of Bullying Ethics Chief Over Concerns About Trump Divestment

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) questions a witness at a Feb. 3, 2016, hearing. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

WASHINGTON — The Senate Democratic leader is accusing the House Oversight chairman of trying to “bully” the director of Office of Government Ethics after the watchdog called President-elect Trump’s plan to deal with his business holdings “wholly inadequate.”

In a speech at the Brookings Institute on Wednesday after Trump’s press conference, OGE director Walter Shaub said Trump’s plan “does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon.”

“Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective,” Shaub said. “The presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust — it’s not even close.”

“…His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t ‘un-know’ that he owns Trump tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.”

Shaub added he’s “especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets.”

“No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that.” he said. “Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.”

“To be clear,” Shaub stressed, “OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.”

Shaub followed up today by posting “A Refresher on Misuse of Position” on the OGE website, detailing the standards of ethical conduct for executive branch employees.

On Thursday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent a letter to Shaub slamming the director for the official OGE Twitter account tweeting at Trump at the end of November — Shaub said it was a nod to the president elect’s preferred means of communication — about the need to divest.

Chaffetz demanded Shaub appear before the committee for an “interview.”

“Your agency’s mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations,” Chaffetz wrote. “The Committee is thus continuing its examination of OGE’s operations. OGE’s statutory authorization lapsed at the end of fiscal year 2007 and the Committee has jurisdiction in the House of Representatives for reauthorizing the office.”

Chaffetz told the Washington Post that he had “deep concerns” about Shaub before the election. “The president and vice president are exempt,” he said. “The voters understood this was a wealthy individual.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the committee, said he asked Chaffetz to invite Shaub to an open hearing so the American people could hear the ethics director’s testimony, but Chaffetz opted instead for the closed-door grilling.

“The Oversight Committee has not held one hearing, conducted one interview, or obtained one document about President-elect Donald Trump’s massive global entanglements, yet it is now apparently rushing to launch an investigation of the key government official for warning against the risks caused by President-elect Donald Trump’s current plans,” Cummings said in a statement today. “Rather than acting as a cheerleader for Donald Trump and attacking or intimidating his critics, the Committee should do its job under the Constitution and investigate his sprawling business deals around the world.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said House Republicans are “filling the swamp instead of draining it” and “trying to handcuff the Office of Government ethics.”

“Mr. Chaffetz’s attempts to bully Mr. Shaub out of doing his job are absolutely despicable,” Schumer said. “…Few have tried to drain the swamp more than Mr. Shaub, and he did it equally well under Democratic and Republican administrations.”

Shaub joined the OGE in 2006 and became director, a five-year term, in 2013.

“Mr. Chaffetz’s attempt to intimidate the office is deplorable, and would be a distraction that would make it harder for OGE to do its already difficult job,” Schumer added.