The Office of Government Ethics plans to press the White House to clarify when it issued a slew of ethics waivers giving its staffers permission to interact with their former employers or clients, an indication that the exemptions might not have been properly granted.
Ten of the 14 waivers publicly disclosed this week by the White House are undated and unsigned, raising questions about when they were put in place.
Particularly troubling, ethics experts said, was a blanket waiver allowing White House appointees to communicate with media organizations where they previously worked that was described as “retroactive” — a maneuver that the ethics office said was not permitted.
“There’s no such thing as a retroactive waiver,” said Walter M. Shaub Jr., director of the ethics office.
The exemption appeared aimed at clearing interactions that chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon may have had with Breitbart News, the conservative news site he previously ran.
Under an ethics pledge mandated by President Trump, Bannon was barred for two years from participating in matters directly related to Breitbart or his other former employers or clients.
Shaub said Friday that the undated waiver for former employees of news organizations would not cover any actions before it was granted.
“Issuing a waiver after the fact won’t fix the problem,” he said.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters during his daily briefing Friday that Trump has authority over enforcement of his ethics pledge.
“He is the ultimate decider on that,” Spicer said, adding: “What we discovered was that several individuals on staff had previously worked for media organizations, and in order to continue having those discussions and advancing the president’s agenda and priorities, it was important to make sure that all individuals had the opportunity to be able to speak to the media about what the president was doing to make the country stronger.”
The ethics agency plans to ask the White House to detail when the waivers were issued, information that is being collected for a report the OGE is compiling on conflict-of-interest exemptions handed out by federal agencies in the past year.
The number of undated waivers coming from the White House raises questions “as to whether they were issued before or after the recipients participated in prohibited matters,” Shaub said. “It would help to know when they were issued.”
The agency’s request could ratchet up tension between the administration and the OGE, which have repeatedly clashed.
The most recent showdown was triggered by the ethics office’s efforts to collect information about the waivers. Last month, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, asked the OGE to stop gathering the data, questioning the agency’s legal jurisdiction.
After Shaub responded that he intended to implement ethics rules “free from political pressure,” the White House relented.
On Wednesday, the administration released information about the 14 ethics waivers granted to 17 specific appointees, including four former lobbyists. The Obama White House handed out 17 exemptions over eight years.
Ten of the Trump White House waivers had no date or signature from a White House lawyer approving the exemptions, including those for senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, energy adviser Michael Catanzaro and Joshua Pitcock, chief of staff for Vice President Pence.
The absence of such information surprised longtime ethics officials, who said the letters did not follow the usual protocol.
Don Fox, a former general counsel and former acting director of the ethics office, said there is no provision for waivers to be issued retroactively.
“A waiver is given in anticipation of somebody having to do something that otherwise might cross an ethical line,” he said. “If you don’t have affirmative authority to do something, without having a waiver in place, then you have violated something.”