Nominees must obtain OGE's certification of their financial disclosure reports
OGE said it would "continue expediting our ethics reviews of the President-elect's nominees to meet reasonable time frames"
Several of the wealthiest nominees for top Cabinet posts are headed to Capitol Hill for confirmation hearings this week, but the clock is ticking for them to complete the ethics and financial review process.
Of the current list of 21 nominees, 14 must still sit for Senate hearings, and only five of those 14 have finalized their required paperwork.
All nominees for Senate-confirmed positions must first work with the Office of Government Ethics to devise a plan for resolving any financial conflicts of interest before they start their new jobs. Typically, the ethics office sends the Senate a package with the nominee’s ethics agreement, a financial disclosure report and a cover letter certifying the report after all potential conflicts are addressed, and then posts the forms on its website roughly a day later.
But the paperwork for two of President-elect Donald Trump’s billionaire nominees with hearings scheduled for this week – namely, Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos (up Tuesday) and Commerce Secretary-designate Wilbur Ross (up Wednesday) – were notably missing from the ethics office’s website as of Monday afternoon.
DeVos is an heir to the Amway fortune and Ross is an investor who made his money buying up distressed companies.
A Senate source indicated that DeVos’ initial hearing date had to be rescheduled because her paperwork “was nowhere near ready,” and Ross had been sluggish in completing his financial disclosure report.
The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment.
The nominees’ missing paperwork comes at a particularly prickly time for relations between ethics office and the incoming administration.
The trouble started after the election last November when Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub emailed Trump aides that despite his office’s repeated outreach: “We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election.”
“Announcing Cabinet picks without taking OGE up on the offer to take an early look at financial disclosure picks poses the risk of embarrassment for the President-elect … in the event that the individual walks away from the nomination after learning what he or she will have to do with his or her financial interests,” Shaub wrote.
Nevertheless, Senate committees began scheduling hearings for several nominees while the ethics office grew concerned they were not being properly vetted ahead of time.
“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” Shaub wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier this month.
“This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews. …In fact, OGE has not received even initial draft disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings,” he wrote.
The Trump transition team pushed back on Shaub’s letter, saying the “transition process is currently running smoothly.”
Yet Shaub did not back down. He blasted Trump’s proposed plan for separating from his business empire – calling it “wholly inadequate” and “meaningless” at an event last week.
Shaub’s comments did not sit well with some Republicans on Capitol Hill and Trump’s team, however.
“The head of the government ethics ought to be careful because that person is becoming extremely political,” incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week.”
Shaub’s office has not responded to CNN interview requests, but if his letter earlier this month is any indication, he plans to stay the course despite the political consequences.
“For as long as I remain director, OGE’s staff and agency officials will not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest,” Shaub wrote.