A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, records show five of his top staffers still have not secured final approval of their financial reports — disclosures that are required by law to assure Americans that these senior officials aren’t personally benefiting from their White House jobs.
Another four staffers received certification by the Office of Government Ethics after McClatchy first requested their forms last month.
The delay is likely due to Trump staffers either refusing to disclose mandated information to OGE, failing to resolve a conflict of interest or violating an ethics law or regulation, according to two ethics experts familiar with the long-standing process. But delays can also occur when White House ethics officials don’t force staffers to comply or because OGE is behind on paperwork.
The number of Trump staffers without certification a year after inauguration is not normal, according to Walter Shaub, who served as OGE director until he quit in protest in July and joined the Campaign Legal Center. “That’s a high rate of failure or delay—and those are the ones the White House knows OGE will review, so the problem might be even worse with the reports that don’t come to OGE,” he said.
The forms are part of an ethics process designed to identify potential conflicts of interest after an examination of staffers’ sources of income, assets and debts.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the administration is working to get forms certified. “The process of getting a final certification from OGE is lengthy and tedious, just as it is with presidential nominees,” she said. “We will continue to work closely with OGE until this process is complete.” OGE declined to comment.
Ethics experts say the administration has failed to make ethics a priority despite the president’s repeated pledge to “drain the swamp” of business as usual in many ways. From the moment Trump resisted calls to place his vast business holdings in a type of trust he doesn’t control or benefit from, his team has disregarded ethics requirements and norms.
For example, Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner -- both of whom are top aides in the White House -- were fined for late financial reports and several top White House staffers, including former chief strategist Steve Bannon, failed to file termination reports after being fired last summer.
“The White House has resisted being held accountable for substantive ethics standards,” said Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer who previously worked for the Washington, D.C. government and the Senate Judiciary Committee and now teaches at Washington University School of Law. “There have been repeated instances of the White House resisting holding officials accountable for violating ethics standards.”
As Trump approached the anniversary of his inauguration, McClatchy reviewed the financial disclosure forms of 54 assistants to the president and deputy assistants to the president, the only White House staffers that OGE is charged with certifying. The reports, obtained through multiple public records requests at OGE and the White House, include those filed when staffers arrive or depart the White House and when they divested holdings. OGE failed to initially produce records that should have been made public.
The phrase leadership from behind, as in a retreat from ethics standards, is an overarching theme of the Trump administration
Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer who previously worked for D.C. government and the Senate Judiciary Committee and now teaches at Washington University School of Law
In addition to the five senior staffers who still lack certification, there’s no evidence that a handful of other top staffers — including Bannon — fully divested their financial investments as required by ethic agreements, which are not considered public records. Others staffers submitted forms that raise questions.
Dina Powell, who served as deputy national security adviser for strategy until Jan. 12, indicated on her new entrant report that she would divest GS Mezzanine Partners VI within 120 days of her Feb. 3 appointment. Some transactions do not need to be recorded because of their type or amount, though hers does not appear to qualify for those exceptions. Unless she gave the holdings away, she would have been required to file a transaction report indicating she divested. Powell was assessed late filing fees on the two transaction reports she did file.
NSC spokesman Michael Anton said Powell divested but he did not answer additional questions about when or why there is no documentation. He acknowledged her late filings but blamed them on computer error. Powell did not comment for this story.
Christopher Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives tasked with “modernizing” government, listed several entities on his certificate of divestiture that never appeared on any transaction reports. The discrepancy could be explained in part by the fact that Liddell received the certificate — which grants tax benefits for sales mandated by ethics agreements — before he filed his financial report. Liddell did not respond to questions. The White House said he sold them prior to becoming a federal employee or gave his holdings away, both of which do not require a transaction report.
Kushner’s ethics arrangements have attracted scrutiny from his earliest days in the administration. Kushner initially said he would sell his assets to his brother or to a trust controlled by his mother, according to The New York Times, but the White House and Kushner’s attorney did not respond to repeated requests about whether Kushner had finished selling all the assets he was required to divest as part of his ethics agreement. As McClatchy previously reported, he's been assessed late fees twice for his ethics filings and revised his form 39 times, adding millions of dollars worth of previously undisclosed assets, according to the Associated Press.
The tone has been set from the top. They don’t seem to take these issues as serious as past administrations
Matthew Sanderson, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington
Trump, a reality TV host boasting a vast real estate empire, ignored calls to fully separate from his business interests when he became president. Administration employees have spent money at Trump hotels and resorts. And White House staff have turned in financial disclosure forms late, some incurring fines, or not at all.
Former staffers Bannon and foreign policy adviser Sebastian Gorka failed to turn in financial reports when they left providing information about potential conflicts of interest that existed during employment and arrangements for future employment, according to OGE. Bannon, for example, was supposed to sell his $1 million to $5 million stake in the company Cambridge Analytica while he served in the administration as part of his ethics agreement, but it’s unclear whether he sold the stake.
Austin Evers, former senior counsel in State Department who is now executive director of American Oversight, a group founded to hold the Trump administration accountable, said financial disclosures protect the integrity of the government by allowing the public to confirm that no government employee is serving two masters.
The Office of Government Ethics is required to destroy records after six years so it’s not possible to compare compliance in Trump’s administration to that of his predecessors.
Five forms had been certified by the White House counsel’s office but not OGE, according to OGE. They include those from Gorka who left in August; lawyer Ira Greenstein; Keith Kellogg Jr., NSC chief of staff and executive secretary; Daniel Scavino Jr., director of social media; and Amy Swonger, who heads up the White House’s Senate legislative affairs team. Three of the five started in January 2017, one in February and another in March.
Four additional staffers’ forms received recent certification after the public records requests were made in December. The form of Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council and Trump’s chief economic adviser, was certified Dec. 22. The forms of Joshua Raffel, a former Hollywood publicist who serves as a spokesman for the Office of American Innovation, and those of Kushner and Ivanka Trump as well as principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah were certified Jan. 3. The form of Marc Short, director of legislative affairs, was certified Jan. 12.
None of the staffers responded to requests for comment.
Matthew Sanderson, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington, described the delay as “quite a long time.” “It would be in everyone’s best interest, including the public, to get this done,” he said.
Trump filled the White House with affluent advisers with assets in the millions. About a quarter of the staffers have “extremely complex” reports, indicating the filers are wealthy, according to the administration.
Federal law requires certain executive branch employees to file new entrant and termination reports within 30 days. The attorney general could take civil or criminal action if a staffer fails to file. Filing a report late is punishable by a $200 fee.
After OGE receives a new report, a manager assigns the report to an employee to review in one business day and the employee reviews the report and sends questions to the White House within two business days, Shaub said. OGE is required by law to review a report in 60 days.
Most agencies satisfy OGE’s initial and follow-up question within about 30 days, some take up to 60 days, Shaub said. “With the notable exception of this White House’s sloppy ethics officials, agency ethics officials just don’t tend to let the review of financial disclosure reports drag out,” he said.