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White House taps new acting ethics chief, elevating general counsel over chief of staff

Walter Shaub, above, a critic of President Trump, has been replaced as director of the United States Office of Government Ethics. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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The White House has tapped David J. Apol, general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics, to serve as the agency's acting director and temporarily succeed Walter M. Shaub Jr., who in the last six months of his tenure emerged as an outspoken critic of Trump administration.

Apol, who has been OGE's general counsel since 2014, previously served as a counsel at the U.S. Trade Representative and in the Clinton White House. He will run the agency until President Trump nominates a permanent director, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate.

In selecting Apol, the White House elevated him over Shaub's chief of staff and designated successor, Shelley K. Finlayson, who had been serving in that role since Shaub stepped down Tuesday.

The move was viewed with concern by some government watchdog groups, who questioned why the administration did not leave Finlayson in place while it searched for a permanent director.

“Clearly, she is absolutely qualified,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight. “Why would they make the effort to shuffle the succession plan and put her subordinate in charge? There is no good reason for them to have done this.”

Shaub on Friday called Apol a “smart attorney,” but said he is concerned that his former colleague will bring a more permissive reading of federal ethics rules to the post.

When they worked together, “we balanced out one another’s views,” said Shaub, now senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, a legal watchdog group. “But I’m concerned that the White House may be trying to ensure looser oversight.”

White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Federal ethics chief who clashed with White House announces he will step down

Created in 1978, the ethics office is designed to promote and protect laws intended to prevent conflicts of interest by government officials. The office offers ethics guidance and training for government officials and oversees employees’ annual disclosure of personal finances. Directors are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to five-year terms — a length of time intended to give the office independence by ensuring directors’ terms overlap presidential administrations.

Shaub was a little-known figure in Washington until this year, when he clashed with the administration over a number of conflicts of interest and ethics issues, including Trump's refusal to sell his real estate and hotel empire before taking office. Critics of the president viewed Shaub as one of the few federal officials will to challenge the administration. Trump allies cast him as a grandstander and noted that he had been appointed during the Obama administration.

Shaub announced his resignation earlier this month, saying he felt that he had reached the limit of what he could achieve in the current administration and within the current ethics framework.

Apol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffrey Neal, a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security who is now a senior vice president at the consulting firm ICF, praised Apol as “a superb career ethics attorney with a long and distinguished record,” adding that “OGE is in great hands with Dave. "

Neal said he has worked with Apol for on many occasions developing and implementing ethics training for federal executives. “He understands that ethics is more than just the words in law,” Neal said. “It is about maintaining impartiality and not using a public position for personal gain.”