White House rebuffs ethics office recommendation to discipline Kellyanne Conway

Oval Office lawyer concludes adviser was speaking in a 'light, offhand manner' when she touted Ivanka Trump's clothing line during appearance on Fox & Friends

Matea Gold
Thursday 02 March 2017 14:37 GMT
Kellyanne Conway tells Americans to 'go buy Ivanka's stuff'

The White House Counsel's Office has concluded that senior adviser Kellyanne Conway acted “inadvertently” when she endorsed Ivanka Trump's clothing line, rebuffing a recommendation by the top federal ethics official that she be disciplined for an apparent violation of federal rules.

Stefan C. Passantino, who handles White House ethics issues as deputy counsel to President Donald Trump, wrote in a letter Tuesday that his office concluded Conway was speaking in a “light, offhand manner” when she touted the Ivanka Trump line during a Feb. 9 appearance on “Fox & Friends.” At the time, she was addressing efforts by activists to persuade retailers such as Nordstrom to drop Ivanka Trump-branded items.

“We concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again,” Passantino wrote to Walter M. Schaub, Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), adding that Conway made the comments “without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally.”

​Passantino said he met with Conway and advised her that her remarks “implicated the prohibition on using one's official position to endorse any product or service.”

“Ms. Conway has acknowledged her understanding of the Standards and has reiterated her commitment to abiding by them in the future,” he added. The White House letter was first reported by CNN.

It remains to be seen if OGE will pursue its recommendation that Conway be disciplined, a move Shaub urged the White House to take in a Feb. 13 letter. “There is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted,” he wrote at the time.

An OGE spokesman said Wednesday that the agency had received Passantino's letter and was evaluating it.

The ethics office does not have investigative powers or enforcement authority. OGE can recommend a penalty for employees who violate federal ethics rules, though its advice is nonbinding. The office can also inform the president if an agency fails discipline an employee, but Shaub noted last month that such a notification would be ineffective if the official declining to take action is the president.

Federal employees typically face a variety of disciplinary actions for violating the rule barring using one's public office for private gain, including a multi-day suspension or loss of pay. US Fish and Wildlife Service employees, for instance, face a minimum five-day suspension, while employees at Customs and Border Protection can be suspended for 14 days for a first offence and removed from their position for a second violation.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings (Maryland), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, expressed disappointment Wednesday with the White House's response.

“It is a very bad sign that the president chose not to discipline Ms. Conway for blatantly violating the law,” he said in a statement. “Other federal employees would likely be suspended for engaging in this conduct, and White House officials should not be held to a different standard. I hope that the president reconsiders his decision and that he and his staff will take their ethical obligations more seriously.”

In a statement, White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said that Trump “takes ethical obligations of all his employees very seriously.”

“The situation has been handled accordingly and all staff have received ethics training,” she added. “We are focused on the important obligation of improving the lives of all Americans.”

The Washington Post

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