How an under-the-radar report revealed the Trump administration's violations of its own ethics pledge
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A governmentwide review has acknowledged for the first time that at least several Trump political appointees violated the administration’s ethics pledge, which was put in place to try to “drain the swamp” by imposing lobbying restrictions and penalties.
The details are tucked away in the Office of Government Ethics’ latest annual report, which attracted little notice when it was released this summer.
While President Donald Trump’s ethics pledge was weaker than previous rules, the government ethics office still found violations in 2018 at three federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the National Labor Relations Board.
No federal agency reported a violation of the Trump ethics pledge in 2017.
At the National Labor Relations Board, Republican board member William Emanuel was found to have improperly voted on a case involving franchisee or contractor violations of labor laws. Emanuel’s former employer, the law firm Littler Mendelson, represents a company that was a party to the original ruling, ProPublica reported. Before he joined the board in September 2017, Emanuel was a shareholder at Littler, which represents corporations in labor disputes.
In December 2017, the labor board overturned the original union-friendly ruling, undoing years of precedent and making it tougher for employees to pursue federal complaints against parent or related companies if they indirectly control employee work conditions. Because of Emanuel’s conflict of interest with Littler, the ruling on the case was ultimately overturned a second time and the labor board’s inspector general called Emanuel’s vote a “serious and flagrant problem and/or deficiency.”
The National Labor Relations Board declined to comment on Emanuel’s ethics violation. Emanuel did not respond to requests for comment.
The report cites an ethics violation by an unnamed presidential appointee at the EPA. Agency officials familiar with the matter said the case involves Bill Wehrum, a former lobbyist and attorney who resigned in June as the agency’s assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. Wehrum is the subject of several internal EPA investigations and faced questions from the House Energy and Commerce Committee over his communications with his former law firm Hunton & Williams, now known as Hunton Andrews Kurth. The firm represented several EPA-regulated power plant operators.
Wehrum, the chief architect of the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Air Act, the EPA and Hunton Andrews Kurth did not respond to requests for comment.
At the Interior Department, government attorneys disclosed in the annual report that “Ethics Pledge violations may have occurred in 2018.” The Interior Department’s inspector general is looking at potential violations of the ethics pledge by six current and former Trump staffers. (The agency also acknowledged problems with its ethics office after an earlier ProPublica story.)
The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Interior Department in February, alleging that six current and former department staffers violated the ethics pledge, calling it “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” and including one former staffer who went directly from working on energy policy to working for an offshore oil drilling firm. Penalties for violating the pledge include fines and a five-year ban on lobbying.
The Interior Department has yet to make any announcement or ruling on the complaint. But in a statement, the agency said it “immediately consulted with department ethics officials after receiving the Center’s complaint in February. Ethics reviewed each matter and provided materials to the chief of staff, who has taken appropriate actions. All of these materials have been provided to the Inspector General.”
Influence peddling in federal politics is not new; in the Obama administration, appointees in both the Interior Department and the EPA were found to have violated his version of the ethics pledge by talking with former business clients.
The difference, ethics experts who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations say, is both the lack of enforcement and the dearth of information coming from certain federal agencies and the White House about its missteps.
“The White House Counsel’s office has taken the lead in making excuses for ethics violations,” said Kathleen Clark, a professor specializing in legal ethics at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. “There’s examples of the White House refusing to impose any sanction for officials found to have committed violations. They’re setting quite the example.”
In the first two years of the Trump administration, 3,887 political appointees — from Cabinet secretaries and acting chiefs to special and confidential assistants — signed the Trump ethics pledge. Of those thousands of political appointees, 116 were registered lobbyists in the two years immediately before starting government service, or roughly 3%.
Employees who signed Trump’s ethics pledge are not allowed to work on “any particular matters” they previously lobbied on. By contrast, the Obama administration banned lobbyists from working at agencies they previously lobbied.
Trump’s ethics pledge also bars those exiting the government from lobbying for five years — except we’ve found dozens of cases of staffers who’ve gone on to do exactly that.
The EPA and the Interior Department, along with other federal agencies, are no strangers to ethics issues over the past 2 1/2 years.
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, resigned in July 2018 after a tumultuous tenure that saw more than a dozen different federal investigations into ethical and legal allegations, including his lease of a bedroom in a condo linked to a Canadian energy company’s Washington lobbying firm. (Pruitt’s attorney, Cleta Mitchell, told The Washington Post, that ethics rules had been unfairly “weaponized in order to destroy political opponents” like Pruitt and that he was “enemy No. 1” when he left the EPA. Pruitt is now working with coal baron Joseph W. Craft III and as an energy consultant and paid speaker while “in full compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law,” Mitchell said.) Current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, had at least three meetings with former clients as Pruitt’s deputy, according to calendars obtained by the trade publication E&E News.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, now a lobbyist with Turnberry Solutions, is being investigated by the Justice Department’s public integrity section over allegations he lied to his agency’s inspector general’s office. That’s on top of two separate probes by the Interior Department’s inspector general about his ties to real estate deals in Montana and a proposed casino project in Connecticut. Zinke also exchanged emails about his family foundation’s Montana property in the summer of 2017, in violation of his own recusal memo he signed with ethics attorneys, according to documents obtained by The Post. (Zinke described the ethics allegations against him to Bloomberg News as “false” and “B.S.,” and calling D.C. “so angry and hateful.”)
As part of a House inquiry into possible ethics violations, current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, was found to have met with officials from Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, one of his former clients. The nonprofit legal center has also filed a complaint against Bernhardt, alleging he violated the ethics pledge by meeting with another former client, California’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district. The Interior Department has said Bernhardt is in “complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules and regulations.”
These reported cases of ethics pledge violations don’t represent the many ethics issues found across the Trump administration.
In April, the State and Energy departments released three long-delayed ethics waivers it has granted to Trump appointees, allowing them to talk to former employers and business clients. An additional 10 waivers specific to the Trump ethics pledge were disclosed by agencies in their annual ethics reports.
In 2017 and 2018, federal agencies referred 125 ethics cases to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Of those cases, 91 were declined and 12 were accepted, with the rest pending.