Walter Shaub, once the head of United States Office of Government Ethics, announced his resignation at the beginning of July, after a tumultuous first few months of Donald Trump’s administration. His first action as a citizen was take to cable news to reveal that the president refused to sign off to certify that his disclosure forms were true.
Just days into his new job taking over the office, acting ethics chief David Apol is already clashing with his new staff and the White House, according to the New York Times. Citing three former senior officials at the agency, it seems Apol has always thought the office was far too rigid when it comes to determining conflicts of interest.
Shaub, for example, determined that Derek Kan, a senior Lyft executive, should sell off his vested stock in the company before joining the Department of Transportation’s head of policy. Apol disagreed. Shaub argued that many of the department’s policy decisions could impact the financial outcome of the company and thus would serve as a conflict of interest.
“It was so immediately obviously crazy,” Shaub told The Times. He claimed Apol’s view of ethics was “loosey-goosey.”
Apol admitted to The Times that he questioned whether dropping stocks was really necessary but claimed he ultimately sided with the decision Shaub made. He also asserted that he’s raised ethical questions about interpretations of laws with other agencies as well as the White House.
“As an attorney in the office, I thought it was useful to ask if all the assumptions we made and practices we had were necessarily the best way to do things,” Apol explained. “I would oppose changing the rules in any way that did not protect the public’s trust.”
The first test comes as Anthony Scaramucci takes over Trump’s communications team. Scaramucci wants a tax break that would score him tens of millions of dollars when he sells his stake in an investment firm.
Apol hasn’t made a decision on whether Scaramucci should get the tax break or not. But Scaramucci isn’t his first case of complicated divestments. He’s been involved in crafting decisions for Jared Kushner’s financial disclosure and has encouraged working closely with the White House before issuing any decisions on rules or policies around legal defense funds or sending letters to members of Congress demanding answers.
“Moves like this jeopardize O.G.E.’s independence,” Shaub explained.
White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said that Apol is only serving in “an acting capacity” and his presence has been a “positive change” compared to Shaub, who clashed with the Trump White House frequently.
“The White House welcomes a return to a traditional working relationship with the Office of Government Ethics in which both entities share a common goal of ensuring public confidence that the executive branch is adhering to the highest possible ethical standards as opposed to an approach whereby individuals manufacture false conflicts for purposes of self-promotion,” Walters said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Apol is questioning what he feels is the rigidity of other agency’s standards. One former associate general counsel clashed with Apol on the types of jobs federal employees can take after leaving public office. The rules would help prevent the “revolving door” of politics often associated with “draining the swamp.”
Apol argued that one staffer who oversaw the insurance or management of a government contract should be able to score a job with the company that got the contract. Even with bans on lobbying by former agency staff, the staffer would be working with his old colleagues. Apol claimed it doesn’t necessarily mean a staffer is trying to use a previous position to influence government. He was overruled.
“In my experience, Dave had a tendency toward idiosyncratic legal interpretations that frequently were more permissive than O.G.E. orthodoxy,” associate counsel Richard M. Thomas told The Times.
The recent decision by Apol was to encourage individual supervisors to hand out wavers rather than mandating it come from the top of the agency. A waiver would be given if a staffer is making a decision that might impact a company the staffer has a financial tie to. These issues are coming up frequently for Trump’s staff because so many lobbyists, CEOs and other business owners are being welcomed into his administration.
Marilyn Glynn, who served as George W. Bush’s former general counsel to OGE, also rejected Apol’s lax decisions as nearly impossible to enforce. That said, she’s fine with testing the rules.
“It is good to have people pushing back and re-examining your historic way of interpreting things,” she said. “But he is a little on the fringes of unconventional interpretations.”
Shaub said that he welcomes debate on ethics from Apol but with him in charge and no one to hold higher standards of ethics, he fears it will make it easier for Trump’s staff to skirt ethics rules.