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.
A top issue on the democracy reform agenda — protecting elections against both disinformation and cyber hacking — is getting some unusual attention this week in the Democratic presidential campaign.
Amy Klobuchar, arguably at the top of the second tier of candidates given her rising support in Iowa, went to Atlanta on Monday to highlight her efforts in the Senate to enhance election security and to unveil some additional proposals.
The choice of location made sense for two reasons. She and nine other Democrats will meet in the city Wednesday night for their latest in a series of debates where the governing system's problems have so far received short shrift. And Georgia has emerged as the most prominent state where bolstering voting rights and election integrity have become a top priority of the Democratic establishment.
The latest effort to ease restrictions on voting through litigation is a challenge to Mississippi's requirement that naturalized citizens show proof of their citizenship when they register.
The lawsuit, filed Monday by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, says the law is unconstitutional because it violates of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause by treating one category of citizens differently from another. People born in the United States need only check a box on the state's registration form attesting they are citizens.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped bring the suit, says Mississippi is the only state with a unique mandate for would-be voters who were not born American citizens.