Website Goes Down At Office Of Government Ethics Amid Political Storm

Jan 13, 2017
Originally published on January 13, 2017 4:54 pm

The website at the Office of Government Ethics went down Friday afternoon, apparently overwhelmed with traffic, as the agency and its director found themselves at the heart of a growing political fight.

OGE website administrator Michael Hanson told NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben the site failure came as a result of the usually sleepy office's website receiving 1 million visitors in just the last three days.

Normally, it gets about 300,000 — in an entire year.

There's a reason the website's traffic has spiked. The office's director, Walter Shaub Jr., has been conducting an unusually public discussion about ethics with the president-elect and the people he has chosen for his Cabinet.

Just Friday afternoon, OGE sent out a tweet that seemed aimed directly at the president-elect.

Although the office didn't respond to a question about why the tweet was sent out when it was, it came a day after Trump tweeted praise of a business and encouraged people to shop there.

That makes the OGE tweet Friday read suspiciously like a subtweet of Trump.

On Wednesday, the same day as Trump's long-awaited news conference where he addressed his potential business conflicts, Shaub gave a speech at the Brookings Institution. Shaub — a political appointee of President Obama in his fourth of a five-year term and a career civil servant — described Trump's announced plans to turn over management of his businesses to his sons as "meaningless" as it relates to conflicts of interest.

"I don't think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be president of the United States of America," Shaub said.

But that was far from his first run-in with the president-elect and his prospective Cabinet. Over the weekend, Senate Democrats released a letter Shaub sent raising alarms about nominees who hadn't completed their ethics reviews being scheduled for confirmation hearings.

The ethics agency director ended the letter, "For as long as I remain Director, OGE's staff and agency ethics officials will not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest."

The Trump transition team responded, saying this was a disservice, and charged, "It is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country."

Late last year, the official OGE Twitter account went on a tweetstorm, written in a style meant to mimic Trump's own Twitter voice, encouraging the president-elect to divest completely. It turns out, as NPR first reported, Shaub personally directed those tweets.

Divestiture is something ethics experts from both sides of the aisle have encouraged, but it isn't required. Conflict-of-interest laws that apply to executive branch employees don't apply to the president. Trump has made it clear he believes he is going above and beyond what is required by law, but Shaub and others have been quite critical of those steps, saying they are insufficient.

This has caused something of a backlash from Republicans, including the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Jason Chaffetz. In a letter to Shaub dated Jan. 12, Chaffetz wrote, "Your agency's mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations."

The letter goes on to issue what some perceived as a threat, mentioning that the Oversight Committee has jurisdiction to reauthorize the office and asking Shaub to come in for a transcribed interview with committee staff by the end of the month.

The top Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, says rather than a closed-door session, he wants Shaub to testify in a public hearing and that Chaffetz was publicly attacking the ethics watchdog.

"The Oversight Committee has not held one hearing, conducted one interview, or obtained one document about President-elect Donald Trump's massive global entanglements," Cummings said in a statement, "yet it is now apparently rushing to launch an investigation of the key government official for warning against the risks caused by President-elect Donald Trump's current plans."

This also comes after House Republicans pushed to reduce the influence of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. Facing a backlash of criticism, they dropped that plan.

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