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White House rebuffs ethics office recommendation to discipline Kellyanne Conway

Kellyanne Conway (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The White House Counsel's Office has concluded that senior adviser Kellyanne Conway acted “inadvertently” when she endorsed Ivanka Trump's clothing line, rebuffing a recommendation by the top federal ethics official that she be disciplined for an apparent violation of federal rules.

Stefan C. Passantino, who handles White House ethics issues as deputy counsel to President Trump, wrote in a letter Tuesday that his office concluded Conway was speaking in a “light, offhand manner” when she touted the Ivanka Trump line during a Feb. 9 appearance on “Fox & Friends.” At the time, Conway was addressing efforts by activists to persuade retailers such as Nordstrom to drop Ivanka Trump-branded items.

“We concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again,” Passantino wrote to Walter M. Shaub, Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, adding that Conway made the comments “without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally.”

Passantino said he met with Conway and advised her that her remarks “implicated the prohibition on using one's official position to endorse any product or service.”

“Ms. Conway has acknowledged her understanding of the Standards and has reiterated her commitment to abiding by them in the future,” he added. The White House letter was first reported by CNN.

Chaffetz, Cummings support ethics office opinion that Conway likely broke rules

It remains to be seen whether OGE will pursue its recommendation that Conway be disciplined, a move Shaub urged the White House to take in a Feb. 13 letter. “There is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted,” he wrote at the time.

Conway has come under fire for touting Ivanka Trump's clothing line during a televised interview. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

An OGE spokesman said Wednesday that the agency had received Passantino's letter and was evaluating it.

The ethics office does not have investigative powers or enforcement authority. OGE can recommend a penalty for employees who violate federal ethics rules, though its advice is nonbinding. The office can also inform the president if an agency fails discipline an employee, but Shaub noted last month that such a notification would be ineffective if the official declining to take action is the president.

Federal employees typically face a variety of disciplinary actions for violating the rule barring using one’s public office for private gain, including a multiday suspension or loss of pay. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, for instance, face a minimum five-day suspension, while employees at Customs and Border Protection can be suspended for 14 days for a first offense and removed from their position for a second violation.

Controversial comments from Kellyanne Conway that made headlines

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 23: Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February, 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who last month called on the White House to follow OGE's advice, said in a statement Wednesday that his committee would continue to monitor the issue.

“Swift action was taken by this committee to highlight the problem with Ms. Conway's comments,” he said. “We will continue to monitor this process to ensure the administration understands these types of comments are inappropriate and takes meaningful steps to prevent future missteps.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, went further, expressing disappointment with the White House's response.

“It is a very bad sign that the president chose not to discipline Ms. Conway for blatantly violating the law,” he said in a statement. “Other federal employees would likely be suspended for engaging in this conduct, and White House officials should not be held to a different standard.  I hope that the president reconsiders his decision and that he and his staff will take their ethical obligations more seriously.”

In a statement, White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said that Trump “takes ethical obligations of all his employees very seriously.”

“The situation has been handled accordingly and all staff have received ethics training,” she added. “We are focused on the important obligation of improving the lives of all Americans.”

This post has been updated.