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Clinton and Trump transitions must follow strict ethics rules, groups say

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump arrive on stage at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9 for the second presidential debate. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The presidential transition teams should adopt a rigorous code of ethics restricting participation from lobbyists and limiting financial conflicts of interest, a coalition of good-government and progressive groups said Wednesday.

The call for tighter rules comes roughly three weeks before the presidential election, which will swiftly expand the winning candidate’s transition team and propel it into action. Aides to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are involved in transition planning now, but the bulk of the work — and potential ethical conflicts — will come after Nov. 8 for the side that wins.

In a letter to Clinton and Trump, advocates called for the transition teams to adopt a stricter version of the ethics code that governed President Obama’s 2008 transition.

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Touted as the strictest rules ever applied to a presidential transition, the code barred people working on the transition from participating in matters that might affect their financial interests or those of a family member, client or business connection. Participants were barred from lobbying the federal government while working on the transition and for the following year on related matters.

The code also explicitly banned bribes and gifts from anyone whose work might be affected by transition planning.

Obama’s “approach to ethics in the transition is a good starting point, which we believe you should emulate and build upon,” the letter stated.

An aide to Clinton said her transition’s co-chairs — Ken Salazar, Tom Donilon, Jennifer Granholm, Neera Tanden and Maggie Williams — signed a code of conduct stating in part that they would recuse themselves from any matter that poses or appears to pose a conflict of interest. It is unclear whether others involved in the transition also agreed to follow these rules or what the rest of the rules are.

A spokeswoman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Advocates pushed the Clinton and Trump transitions to tighten the Obama rules in three respects.

First, they urged the teams to carefully avoid not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts of interest, arguing these could “undermine the public’s faith that these decisions are made on any basis but merit.” To do this, the transition’s executive director would make publicly available determinations about transition workers’ involvement in matters that appear to pose conflicts of interest.

Second, advocates pressed for a ban on participation from “shadow” lobbyists who seek to influence government but do not meet the threshold for registering under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Third, they called for the transition to “identify a senior person on the transition as the point person for ethics” — a forerunner to an administration “ethics czar.”

The letter was signed by the Campaign for Accountability; the Campaign Legal Center; the Center for Biological Diversity; Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; Demand Progress; Democracy 21; the Electronic Privacy Information Center; the Franciscan Action Network; Issue One; the Project on Government Oversight; the Sunlight Foundation; Take Back Our Republic; the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign; Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute; Peter Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center; and Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.

Catherine Ho contributed.