Instead of investigating concerns that President-elect Donald Trump will come to power with numerous conflicts of interest, the Republican head of the House Oversight Committee is now threatening the government ethics monitor who called them out.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent a letter (pdf) to Walter Shaub, head of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), admonishing him for "blurring the lines between public relations and official ethics guidance," citing a series of OGE tweets encouraging President-elect to commit to "full divestiture" of his business holdings (which he has refused to do.)
In the letter, Chaffetz warns Shaub that the OGE's operations are being examined by the committee and then demands that he make himself available "for a transcribed interview with the Committee staff as soon as possible, but not later than January 31, 2017."
What's more, in an interview with Politico, Chaffetz said he would go so far as to subpoena Shaub "if we have to."
Notably, the letter was issued one day after Shaub publicly denounced the president-elect for his ethics failures, particularly Trump's plan to hand his business empire over to his sons—an arrangement Shaub described as "meaningless."
Shaub also in recent days has expressed "great concern" that a number of Trump's cabinet nominees had not submitted financial disclosure information to his office, and thus had not been properly vetted, ahead of their Senate confirmation hearings.
Chaffetz's decision to "bully" Shaub, as Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it, rather than investigate the potential conflicts of interest within the incoming Trump administration has sparked outrage among Democratic lawmakers, concerned citizens, as well as government transparency watchdogs.
"First, House Republicans tried to gut the Office of Congressional ethics. Now they're trying to handcuff the Office of Government ethics," Schumer said in a statement. "Mr. Chaffetz's attempt to bully Mr. Shaub out of doing his job are absolutely despicable."
On Friday, 20 government accountability groups and ethics experts wrote to Chaffetz requesting that any inquiry into OGE is "bipartisan, held in public, addresses the Trump administration's potential conflicts-of-interest, and is calibrated to interfere as little as possible with OGE's ongoing activities of reviewing the incoming adminsitration's complicance with ethical requirements."
The signatories, which include law professor Zephyr Teachout, Public Citizen, Common Cause, and the Center for Media Democracy, continue:
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee clearly has jurisdiction over OGE and we do not quibble with the proper exercise of its oversight authority.
Nevertheless, we cannot help but be alarmed by a letter that: (1) lacks bipartisan support; (2) unreasonably demands the head of OGE and possibly OGE staff be interviewed during the peak time they are vetting President Elect Trump and his nominee's ethics forms; (3) does not address the underlying issues of whether President Elect Trump and his nominees are complying with government ethics requirements; and (4) does not meet the reasonable accommodation of holding such an inquiry in public.
Simiarly, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, also wrote Chaffetz asking that the committee invite Shaub to present "public testimony" next week "regarding President-Elect Donald Trump's massive global business entanglements."
"I believe it is imperative," Cummings wrote, "that Director Shaub be permitted to testify in public—before the American people—to avoid any perception that he is being unfairly targeted behind closed doors for expressing his views."
Perhaps Cummings' word of caution came too late, as many observers seized on the news of Chaffetz's threat to chastise—and mock—the Republican's misguided investigation:
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) January 13, 2017
— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) January 13, 2017
Can't tell u how many times in '16 I heard voters say how much they wanted GOP to go after ethics watchdogs https://t.co/dcm2nB0TuX
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) January 13, 2017
Week 1: gut ethics oversight.
Week 2: rush nominees before ethics approval
End of Week 2: attack ethics chief https://t.co/BJLMPBpFQ2
— Adam Smith (@asmith83) January 13, 2017
1202 225 7751
Call Chaffetz. Tell him that trying to intimidate the Office of Government Ethics for warning of corruption is unpatriotic.
— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) January 13, 2017
— Common Cause (@CommonCause) January 13, 2017
5. Office of Government Ethics is an independent ethics watchdog. It shouldn't be subject to harassment by Congress https://t.co/QqDKT96flm
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) January 13, 2017