WASHINGTON — The director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics has notified the White House there is “strong reason” to believe that Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, violated ethics rules when she promoted Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand on television and that disciplinary action is “warranted.”
“Under the present circumstances, there is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted,” wrote Walter M. Shaub, Jr., director of the OGE, in a letter to Stefan Passantino, deputy counsel to the president and designated agency ethics official.
Conway was widely criticized after her remarks on “Fox & Friends” last week, urging consumers to buy the merchandise at other stores or online after Nordstrom dropped the brand. Her comments followed a tweet from President Trump lashing out at Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s collection.
Nordstrom defended its actions last week, stating the company dropped the brand because sales had “steadily declined” in the second half of last year.
Conway’s remarks also drew a rebuke from a powerful Republican committee chairman in the House, who said what she did was “wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform joined Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, in writing a letter to the OGE director, asking for a review and disciplinary action if warranted.
According to the federal ethics code: “An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives.”
“I note that OGE’s regulation and misuse of position offers as an example the hypothetical case of a presidential appointee appearing in a television commercial to promote a product,” Shaub said. “Ms. Conway’s action’s track that example almost exactly. Therefore, I recommend that the White House investigate Ms. Conway’s actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her.”
He pointed to the comments Conway made on television while standing in the White House press briefing room in front of the official seal of the White House and the American flag.
“The facts, if true, would establish a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position,” Shaub said.
Conway told consumers to: “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I would tell you. I hate shopping and I’m going to get some myself today.
“This is just a wonderful line,” Conway said. “I own some of it. I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
Shaub asked the White House to provide findings from its own investigation and to notify the office of any disciplinary action or corrective action taken in conjunction with Conway’s remarks by Feb. 28.
In a separate letter to Chaffetz and Cummings, Shaub said the OGE is “limited with respect to the actions it can take.”
He said when the office has reason to believe a government employee may have violated ethics rules, the law authorizes OGE to make only an informal recommendation that the “employing agency” (in this case the White House) investigate the matter and consider taking disciplinary action against the employee, noting those are the steps the office took in its letter sent to Passantino.
But senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller defended Conway’s comments on ABC television this past weekend, claiming the affair has been blown out or proportion and that Conway was speaking in a “lighthearted” fashion about someone she thought was being “treated very unfairly.”