BORDC/DDF joined with 20 government accountability groups and ethics experts today to call on the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Chaffetz (R-UT), to desist from apparent efforts to undermine the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). Many more citizens have been contacting members of the House Oversight Committee directly. The letter is here.
On January 12, in an undisclosed letter, Rep. Chaffetz demanded Walter Shaub, Director of OGE, testify in a closed-door session, with vague hints of retaliation against that office should he not comply. The partisan letter appears to be a veiled threat designed to punish OGE for urging President-elect Trump and his nominees to comply with ethics laws and norms.
Daniel Shuman, policy director at Demand Progress organized the effort, explaining:
“Chairman Chaffetz’s demand for OGE Director Walter Shaub to testify behind closed doors about the agency’s activities looks like an attack on the independent functioning of the Office of Government Ethics in response to its work reviewing conflicts of interest related to the incoming Trump administration. President Trump and his administration must come clean before they come into office, and we expect the House Oversight Committee to be an ally for accountable government and to work to strengthen OGE, not undermine it.”
The letter calls for any testimony from OGE to be conducted in the open, in a bipartisan manner, to avoid interfering with OGE’s ongoing ethics review of the incoming Trump administration, and for it to include testimony addressing the Trump administration’s potential conflicts of interest.
The Honorable Jason Chaffetz
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
January 13, 2017
Dear Chairman Chaffetz:
We note with concern your Jan. 12, 2017 letter to Walter Shaub, Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), demanding the director testify in a closed-door session in short order (i.e. that he “make himself available available for a transcribed interview with Committee staff as soon as possible, but no later than January 31, 2017.”) The letter adds “the Committee may also need to interview additional witnesses,” which hints at interviews of other OGE staff. The New York Times characterized the letter as “including a veiled threat of an investigation.” We also see it as a threat to cut off funding for this vital institution.
The context in which your letter was sent—the noncompliance of the incoming Trump administration with some recommendations of OGE to address conflicts-of-interest and other ethics issues pertaining to incoming senior administration officials—raises concerns that the letter may be inordinately partisan and not in furtherance of the purpose you have declared for the committee: “we will work with our colleagues in the minority to exercise effective oversight over the federal government and will work proactively to investigate and expose waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Indeed, the Ranking Member of the Committee, the Hon. Elijah Cummings, wrote to you on January 12, 2017, requesting “the Committee convene a hearing next week … to hear public testimony from the nation’s top government ethics expert regarding President-Elect Donald Trump’s massive global business entanglements.” He added “I believe it is imperative that Director Shaub be permitted to testify in public — before the American people — to avoid any perception he is being unfairly targeted behind closed doors for expressing his views.” (emphasis added)
Committee leaders of both parties have a long bipartisan history of working across party lines and with civil society on government transparency and accountability issues. The recent enactment of the FOIA Improvement Act and DATA Act, and ongoing protection of whistleblowers, is testament to the power and purpose of collaborating to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and we applaud those efforts. Recent reporting suggests the Committee may plan to investigate the Trump administration less vigorously than the Obama administration, a charge that we hope you will dispel.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee clearly has jurisdiction over OGE and we do not quibble with the proper exercise of its oversight authority. Nevertheless, we cannot help but be alarmed by a letter that: (1) lacks bipartisan support; (2) unreasonably demands the head of OGE and possibly OGE staff be interviewed during the peak time they are vetting President Elect Trump and his nominee’s ethics forms; (3) does not address the underlying issues of whether President Elect Trump and his nominees are complying with government ethics requirements; and (4) does not meet the reasonable accommodation of holding such an inquiry in public.
Accordingly, we request you defer any inquiry into OGE until such time as it is bipartisan, held in public, addresses the Trump administration’s potential conflicts-of-interest, and is calibrated to interfere as little as possible with OGE’s ongoing activities of reviewing the incoming administration’s compliance with ethical requirements.
We are, sincerely yours,
Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation
Center for Media Democracy
Center for American Progress
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
Free Speech For People
Fund for Constitutional Government
James A. Thurber
No More Guantanamos
People For the American Way
 The letter is described in the New York Times, “G.O.P. Lawmaker Hints at Investigating Ethics Chief Critical of Trump,” by Steve Eder and Eric Lipton (January 13, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/
 New York Times, “Obama Watchdog in Congress Has New Target in Trump Era: Postal Reform” (January 9, 2017), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/
cc: The Hon. Elijah Cummings