Compared with the Obama administration, the Trump White House has been much slower to submit its nominees’ financial arrangements for review by the federal Office of Government Ethics.
A statistical report NPR obtained from OGE on Friday shows that the Trump nominees’ documents have not only come in more slowly, but also have been far more complex.
The OGE shared the data with NPR in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act. OGE officials say the report was compiled for the Congressional Research Service in February.
OGE works with presidential nominees to make sure their financial holdings do not influence their decisions as public officeholders. The watchdog agency, which does not have investigative or enforcement power, reviews financial reports submitted by the White House to help identify and address ethical issues.
The data showed that under Obama, OGE had received roughly 140 nominee reports by Feb. 5, 2009 — and the reports had begun arriving about two weeks after Obama was elected. Under Trump, by Feb. 5 of this year, OGE had received just over 30 nominee reports, which started arriving about a month after Trump’s election.
The statistics offer a new illustration of Trump’s slower pace of filling his Cabinet as well as the vast wealth of many of his nominees, a number of whom at the highest ranks are billionaires with complex investments and financial and corporate ties.
In fact, OGE classified the vast majority of the financial reports filed by the Trump administration nominees as “complex” or “extremely complex.” That means the reports come from people who are — by OGE’s assessment — wealthy or extremely wealthy, holding complex and wide-ranging investments and business arrangements, including in some cases ongoing deals.
“These reports usually present unusual or novel legal issues related to conflicts of interest. The ethics review cannot be completed without the direct involvement of OGE’s managers or leadership,” the ethics agency says in the document as it defines the “extremely complex” category.
By comparison, under Obama, only a sliver of nominees’ financial reports were classified as “extremely complex,” according to OGE data, which shows roughly a third of them classified as “simple” and another third as “moderate” during Obama’s transition into the White House.
Yet, OGE’s statistics show that the agency is actually moving slightly faster in vetting the financial reports under Trump now than it did during Obama’s first term.
The White House issued this statement on Saturday:
“Prior to being submitted to OGE, the reports undergo extensive legal review by White House counsel. White House staff are given ethics counsel to avoid any conflict of interest based upon this review. The President has chosen individuals who have been tremendously successful in their business to help him implement his agenda. These individuals have made financial sacrifices for the good of our country. We are working diligently to ensure the White House office runs in compliance with ethics rules.”
As of Feb. 5, the agency was taking fewer than 20 days to process the received financial reports and get them “pre-cleared” — defined as having the financial information reviewed and corrected, and conflicts of interest addressed in an ethics agreement.
The documents also shows that in the same period of time, OGE pre-cleared a much larger portion of received financial reports under Trump than under Obama.
OGE’s review typically paves the way for the Senate to begin the confirmation process. In January, however, OGE Director Walter Shaub wrote to Congress to express concerns that the Senate confirmation hearings were being scheduled faster than usual and before the completion of proper ethics reviews.
As NPR has reported, while OGE “gets attention for working with 22 Cabinet-level nominees, its biggest job involves getting and vetting the annual financial disclosures of 370,000 mid-level federal employees.”
OGE advises future officeholders on ways to eliminate personal financial ties that may be in conflict with their work in the public interest, in compliance with conflicts-of-interest rules. For instance, Shaub has praised the “clean break” Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson made from the company as he prepared to become U.S. secretary of state.
Presidents, however, are exempt from these conflicts-of-interest rules (though they are subject to other ethics rules, including bribery and insider trading laws and restrictions on gifts from foreign officials). So Trump himself remains the owner of his international network of businesses.
NPR’s Peter Overby contributed to this report.
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