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House Democrats seek details of Trump ethics waivers

Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings launched investigation earlier this week

House Oversight Chairman Eijah E. Cummings has launched an investigation into the Trump administration’s use of ethics waivers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Oversight Chairman Eijah E. Cummings has launched an investigation into the Trump administration’s use of ethics waivers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, wants a status update on the state of the swamp in the Trump administration.

The Maryland Democrat launched an investigation late this week into the administration’s use of ethics waivers, which allow former lobbyists to work on matters they handled in their previous private sector jobs. Cummings sent letters to the White House and 24 agencies and Cabinet departments requesting copies of their ethics pledges and details of any waivers that could expose “potential conflicts of interest.”

“Although the White House committed to providing information on ethics waivers on its website, the White House has failed to disclose comprehensive information about the waivers,” Cummings wrote in a May 16 letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

A White House official declined comment on the investigation, and a committee aide said the administration had not yet responded to the requests. A spokeswoman for Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Oversight panel, did not immediately provide a comment.

After President Donald Trump ran on a “drain the swamp” message, the Trump administration ushered in a tough-sounding ethics pledge through an executive order in January 2017 requiring officials to recuse themselves from participating in matters they had lobbied on in the previous two years. But the waivers allow appointees to circumvent those restrictions.

The administration has disclosed some ethics waivers, but Cummings said some don’t even name individuals and instead amount to “the issuance of a blanket waiver to a class of appointees, but do not provide details about the specific appointees covered by the waiver,” Cummings said in his letter.

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Some waivers did include officials’ names, such as one in 2017 for Lance Leggitt, a former lobbyist with Baker Donelson, to work at the Health and Human Services Department. Leggitt later became deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Before joining HHS as chief of staff, Leggitt represented health care clients in 2016, including Arriva Medical and the Arthroscopy Association of North America, among others. “Granting this limited waiver will allow Mr. Leggitt to freely carry out the full responsibilities of his office rather than requiring him to continue to recuse from particular matters on which he lobbied,” wrote White House counsel Don McGahn in an April 2017 memo.

Outside ethics watchdog groups say the waivers render the ethics pledges, which also establish restrictions on lobbying activities after leaving the Trump administration, essentially worthless.

“Trump’s pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ was merely campaign rhetoric, and his ethics executive order is a facade that no one in the administration, including Trump, takes seriously,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal group Public Citizen. “The waiver process under the Trump administration shows that the ethics executive order has little meaning, and the campaign pledge to drain the swamp ended with the election.”

Cummings seeks specifics about the ethics waivers, including the date they were signed. That’s significant, Holman said, because past disclosures have not included such details.

“Nearly all of these waivers were unsigned and undated, strongly suggesting that they were issued and that many were written after the fact, covering up a general lack of attention within the administration to the ethics executive order,” Holman said.

The administration has been reluctant to cooperate on numerous document requests from congressional Democrats.

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