It’s not clear if anyone noticed last week when deputy press secretary Raj Shah fired a distress flare from the deck of a White House that is sinking into a swamp as deep as the sea.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Shah had been asked why at least four former presidential appointees –reportedly among them, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon — had failed to file their termination financial disclosure reports upon leaving federal service.
Shah’s response was not that the former appointees had in fact filed their disclosures, nor was it that White House ethics officer Stefan Passantino and his assistant, Jim Schultz, were actively engaged in helping them file. Instead, Shah signaled abject helplessness. He declared the White House powerless to address violations of the Ethics in Government Act by appointees who leave government.
According to McClatchy, a spokesman for Bannon, Arthur Schwartz, said in an email that Bannon did file, but Schwartz did not provide details. White House records from the past week showed that Bannon still had not filed. The same McClatchy article notes that others, like Sean Spicer and K.T. McFarland, managed to file their termination financial disclosure reports, with varying degrees of timeliness. But the article cites no White House explanation for either the discrepancy as to Bannon’s filing or the failure of some senior appointees to file disclosures.
Perhaps things would have been different if the White House had set a better tone from the top and instilled a firm commitment to ethics. Had that been the case, the former appointees in question would have understood the importance of filing their disclosures to give the public insight into their compliance with conflict of interest laws and their financial dealings while wielding the power of high public office.
These former appointees might then have been willing to file their disclosures with little prompting. Failing that, and contrary to Shah’s claims that the Trump administration has no ability to force former appointees to comply with ethics laws, Passantino and Schultz are not without tools for ensuring compliance.
Collecting financial disclosures is the most routine of the routine tasks ethics officials perform. Some experienced ethics officials in other agencies have managed to insert themselves into the out-processing procedures for departing officials, refusing to sign any exit forms before receiving these disclosures.
Ethics officials are supposed to hound wayward former appointees with calls and emails, which they should log for evidentiary purposes should enforcement action become necessary. They can escalate with formal letters sent by certified mail to issue stern warnings about late fees and more severe consequences. If all else fails, they can contact the Justice Department, which has the authority to seek civil penalties or criminal prosecution of offenders for refusing to file required disclosures.
Shah’s claim of powerlessness gives no indication that the White House ethics office has tried any of these measures to get its former appointees to comply. According to the McClatchy article, “Shah said the White House doesn’t have an ability to force former staffers to comply with the law and referred questions to the individuals.”
Approaches to managing ethics programs can vary somewhat from agency to agency, but what ethics officials don’t do is try nothing, accept defeat and let a professional mouthpiece like Shah tell reporters to chase after the former appointees themselves in search of answers.
In this context, Shah’s response is as illuminating as it is seemingly befuddled. It’s a bright red flare revealing the White House ethics office to be either inept or indifferent. That office’s failure to fulfill as basic an ethics function as collecting financial disclosures indicates either alternative is possible, but my money is on malignant indifference to ethics.