The director of the Office of Government Ethics said there is “strong reason to believe” that senior adviser Kellyanne Conway violated federal rules by endorsing Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, urging the White House to investigate the matter and consider disciplining her.
In a Feb. 13 letter to White House Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino, OGE Director Walter M. Shaub Jr., wrote that Conway’s comments appeared to be “a clear violation” of federal ethics rules that bar federal employees from using their public office to endorse a product.
“Under the present circumstances, there is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted,” he wrote.
Shaub added that the ethics agency has not been notified whether the White House has disciplined Conway, even though press secretary Sean Spicer said she was “counseled” after she promoted Ivanka Trump’s brand on Fox News.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment. Conway declined to comment.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who last week called Conway’s comments, “absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong” and asked OGE to recommend disciplinary action, called on President Trump to follow the agency’s advice.
“I appreciate the quick response from OGE and hope the White House heeds their recommendation,” he said in a statement.
That was echoed by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, who on Tuesday described Conway’s remarks “a textbook violation of federal ethics rules.”
The ethics agency does not have investigative powers or enforcement authority. But the letter from Shaub steps up the pressure on the White House Counsel’s Office to disclose whether it took any action in response to Conway’s remarks. Shaub asked Passantino for a response by Feb. 28.
The episode began when Conway appeared on “Fox & Friends” Feb. 9 from the White House briefing room and addressed efforts by activists to get retailers such as Nordstrom to stop carrying Ivanka Trump items. In response, she touted the “wonderful line” of clothing, shoes and accessories marketed under the Ivanka Trump brand.
“I’m going to give a free commercial here,” she added. “Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
Shaub noted in his letter that Conway’s remarks closely resembled a hypothetical example in the federal regulations of the kind of endorsement of a private product that federal employees are barred from making.
“Ms. Conway’s actions track that example almost exactly,” he wrote. “Therefore, I recommend that the White House investigate Ms. Conway’s actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her.”
Ethics experts said that violating the rule barring using one’s public office for private gain can trigger a variety of disciplinary actions, including a multiday suspension or loss of pay. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, for instance, face a five-day suspension or termination for such a violation.
But OGE has little recourse if the White House declines to take any disciplinary actions, as Shaub noted in a separate letter to the House Oversight Committee. The ethics office can merely issue a “nonbinding” recommendation and inform the president if an agency is failing to discipline an employee.
“However, such notice would be ineffective in this case because any decision not to take disciplinary action will have been made by the President,” Shaub added.
Government watchdog groups said that they have little expectation that Trump will levy any punishment, noting that Conway was following his example of publicly promoting private products. (The president and vice president are exempt from the regulations governing the use of public office for private gain.)
“Forgive us if we don’t hold our breath,” said Robert Weissman, president of the nonprofit group Public Citizen.
Drew Harwell contributed to this report.