May 2, 2017

Whitehouse Presses Justice Department on Ethics Documents

‘In light of the Department’s failure to respond to my prior requests, General Sessions’ confirmation testimony is beginning to ring hollow’

Washington, DC – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for information on the Department’s conflict of interest determinations for new Trump political hires, including ethics agreements, disclosures, and waivers.  After the Department did not respond to an initial request for the information in February, Whitehouse calls on Acting Assistant Attorney General Samuel Ramer to provide the ethics documentation quickly and completely.

As an example of the type of conflicts of interest that should be subject to congressional oversight, Whitehouse’s letter cites a Trump appointee currently overseeing the Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, who was forced to recuse himself from dozens of cases due to ethics restrictions barring attorneys from participating in litigation against parties they used to represent. 

The letter also notes that the Department has provided information to other parties in response to Freedom of Information Act requests that are responsive to Whitehouse’s February request.  Recalling Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ pledge from his confirmation hearing, Whitehouse writes that there is no “legitimate reason” to withhold that information further.  “In light of the Department’s failure to respond to my prior requests, General Sessions’ confirmation testimony is beginning to ring hollow,” Whitehouse adds.

Full text of the letter is below.  A PDF copy, including attachments, is available here.

May 1, 2017 

The Honorable Samuel R. Ramer

Acting Assistant Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

Office of Legislative Affairs

Main Justice Building, Room 1145

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Mr. Ramer:

I write to reiterate and expand upon the request in my letter of February 17, 2017, and a subsequent e-mail from my staff for information related to Department of Justice’s conflict of interest determinations for new employees.  That letter, as well as a copy of the e-mail, are enclosed.

My original request was intended, in summary, to obtain information about the Department’s review of political appointees for conflicts of interest.  Since my original request, the Department presumably has on-boarded a fuller complement of politically appointed positions and financial disclosures and ethics agreements for those appointees have been completed.  I have enclosed a completed OGE Form 201, with an attachment listing all political appointees identified in media reports as having joined the Department since January 20, 2017.  By submitting the form that members of the public use to obtain and review public financial disclosure reports (Form 278), I expect you to provide the underlying documentation necessary to respond to my original request.  I also request that you provide ethics agreements and counseling notes for the individuals identified. 

For each political appointee who did not submit a Form 278 form within 30 days of being appointed, please confirm that an extension was granted and what good cause for the extension was shown pursuant to 5 U.S.C. app. 4 § 101(g)(1); 5 C.F.R. § 2634.201(f).

During his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Sessions committed to the Chairman that the “Department will respect [the Judiciary Committee’s] oversight role and the particularly critically important separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.”[1] He added: 

“[The Judiciary] Committee has oversight but it goes beyond that.  This Committee and the Congress funds the various branches of the executive branch, the various departments.  And you have every right before you fund our agencies and departments to get responsive answers to questions that are proper.  Sometimes the department-the Congress has asked for issues that maybe there’s legitimate reasons to object to, but they should object and state why.  Mr. Chairman, I will be responsive to your request, and I understand your history more than anyone in this Congress to advance the idea that the executive branch needs to be held accountable, and I salute you for it.”[2]  (p.23)

In light of the Department’s failure to respond to my prior requests, General Sessions’ confirmation testimony is beginning to ring hollow. 

It is apparent from media reports that the Department is providing responsive documents to the public pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests, so I foresee no “legitimate reasons” for not disclosing them to me.[3]  If my previous requests were unclear or otherwise not possible to answer, I expect the Department will follow Attorney General Sessions’ expectation that it “object and state why.”

A failure by the Department to cooperate with reasonable requests from its Members makes the conduct of any Department business before the Committee more complicated.  Accordingly, I urge you to respond to this request promptly and thoroughly. 

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