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Government Ethics

White House lacked top ethics official for 6 months

The top ethics office at the White House was kept vacant for a crucial six months of the Trump administration, and the president's lawyers sought to keep the situation under wraps, a watchdog group reported Tuesday.


The position was filled last month by Scott Gast, who has been an attorney in the White House counsel's office since the start of Trump' tenure. Stefan Passantino left the job in August and is now working for the Trump Organization, handling demands for materials and testimony in congressional investigations.

The half year when the job was vacant coincided with a particularly turbulent time in the West Wing – with a high degree of staff turnover, the climax of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and a midterm election that created new oversight worries once the Democrats took control of the House. The top ethics officer's duties include setting and enforcing government ethics guidelines at the White House that prevent conflicts of interest, and the completion of officials' financial disclosure reports.

President Trump's failure to promptly fill the job "is consistent with his preference to leave important government positions vacant," according to CREW, or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which reported the delay based on results of a Freedom of Information Act request. "Indeed, the president has allowed several agency Inspector General positions to remain vacant for the entire duration of his presidency. Vacancies, however, undermine the authority of acting officials and weaken morale in government offices."

CREW said the record it obtained suggested that the White House was not cooperative with either the Office of Government Ethics or the Government Accountability Office when they sought details of Passantino's decision-making or the delay in replacing him.

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Open Government
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FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub

The struggle is real: FEC stalled on regulations for online political ads

The Federal Election Commission has once again punted on establishing rules for identifying who is sponsoring online political advertisements. Thursday marked the fourth consecutive meeting in which the topic fell to the wayside without a clear path forward.

FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub revived debate on the topic in June when she introduced a proposal on how to regulate online political ads. In her proposal, she said the growing threat of misinformation meant that requiring transparency for political ads was "a small but necessary step."

Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen and Commissioner Caroline Hunter put forth their own proposal soon after Weintraub, but the commissioners have failed to find any middle ground. At Thursday's meeting, a decision on the agenda item was pushed off to a later date.

Weintraub's proposal says the funding source should be clearly visible on the face of the ad, with some allowance for abbreviations. But Petersen and Hunter want to allow more flexibility for tiny ads that cannot accommodate these disclaimers due to space.

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Open Government
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California's Supreme Court is expediting President Trump's challenge to a new state law that would require him to release five years of tax returns in order to get on the state ballot for the 2020 election.

California court expedites Trump challenge to new tax returns requirement

The California Supreme Court is fast-tracking its review of a challenge to a new law that would require President Trump to make public his tax returns in order to get on the state's ballot for the 2020 election.

A lawsuit seeking to block implementation of the law was filed August 6 by the California Republican Party against Secretary of State Alex Padilla. It claims the law violates California's constitution.

Two other challenges, one filed by Trump's personal lawyers, are pending in federal court.

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