This week is set to be a busy one in American politics.
Congress is ready to pass more legislation to repeal Obamacare, which has a greater chance of eventually becoming law once there’s a new resident of the White House in a few weeks.
President Obama is getting ready for his farewell address tomorrow, and President-elect Trump says he’s finally going to have a press conference, which he hasn’t done since July.
Several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees are headed to Capitol Hill this week for their confirmation hearings, even as the Office of Government Ethics, responsible for some of the financial vetting of presidential nominees, said it hasn’t had enough time, or received enough information, to inform the Senate of potential conflicts of interest.
The warning from the OGE came in a letter to Senate Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. In response to Senators’ questions, OGE Director Walter Shaub, Jr. said the pace of nomination hearings was placing “undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews. More significantly, it has left some nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings.”
The Trump campaign got a bit of a late start with its own staffing and nominating process, and now, according to Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight, “There’s a question on whether it’s the actual candidates that haven’t provided all the information the OGE needs or the OGE hasn’t completed the review. Because obviously you have some people who have been named... obviously have a lot of money and are billionaires.”
Greater wealth and financial holdings can mean more complicated forms to wade through.
University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter was the chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, and had to fill out similar disclosure forms. He said their complexity depends on the financial resources a particular nominee has, and the cost to prepare those documents is on the individual nominees.
“I was able to do it in an afternoon,” said Painter, whereas “someone like Hank Paulson who came to the Treasury Department after being the chairman of Goldman Sachs — it took him a team of lawyers about two weeks to do it for him.”
And there are quite a few people with very large and complicated financial holdings lined up for Trump’s cabinet.
Usually, the ethics office works with nominees on a plan to either sell off holdings or recuse themselves if the need arises, according to Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“For the most part, many of these actions that are part of an ethics agreement are aimed at clearing the financial deck of the nominees so they don’t have financial interests that could come into play or be affected by what they will do in office,” said Clark. Without doing that in advance of confirmation, Clark says nominees may be at risk.
Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said those risks can include fines for not disclosing conflicts, or potentially face criminal prosecution.
“Beyond that,” he added, “conflicts of interest could lead to challenges of all sorts government decisions. If they involve themselves in government decisions where there’s a conflict, that decision could be subject to a lawsuit, people affected by that decision could challenge it.”
Republican leaders in the Senate say they’ll give careful consideration to each of the nominees. And the Trump campaign has said the vetting process is going just fine.