WASHINGTON ― Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, told reporters last week that a government ethics official who had criticized President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deal with his potential conflicts of interest refused to meet with him. Chaffetz even threatened to subpoena the official, Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub. “This is not going to be an optional exercise,” Chaffetz said.
But it was Chaffetz who missed a previously discussed meeting in early December, according to Office of Government Ethics emails The Huffington Post obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. And the ethics office now says the congressman is trying to keep an upcoming meeting — proposed for Jan. 23 — closed to the public.
M.J. Henshaw, a spokeswoman for the House oversight committee, declined to comment on the emails and Chaffetz’s statements to reporters. She acknowledged that Chaffetz requested a December meeting with Shaub, and confirmed a meeting is expected to take place on Jan. 23. “The Chairman looks forward to a productive discussion on ways to update and strengthen the agency,” she said.
The Office of Government Ethics is supposed to prevent conflicts of interest in the executive branch. The agency has been especially busy since the election of Trump, the first president in the modern era who will take office without divesting or separating from holdings that may pose conflicts of interest.
Shaub said he lost contact with the Trump transition team, and the agency attempted to influence the president-elect on Twitter, according to the New Yorker. It sent a series of tweets that mimicked Trump’s own style. (One read: “Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest. Good call!”) Ultimately, Trump didn’t sell his assets. Instead, he said he would hand over control of his business empire—which he will continue to own a stake in—to his sons. Shaub was not impressed.
Trump’s plan to break from his businesses is “meaningless,” Shaub said at the Brookings Institution on Jan. 11. “This is not a blind trust, this is not even close,” he added.
Rather than investigating Trump’s entanglements, Republicans attacked OGE. Chaffetz—who previously cited his teen daughter as a reason he couldn’t support Trump, then voted for him—sent a threatening letter to Shaub dated Jan. 12, instructing him to come in for a closed-door meeting with House Oversight Committee staff. That letter surfaced in the press, but in an internal email, Shaub noted that Chaffetz’s staff apparently didn’t want the public to know about it.
Shaub wrote in a Jan. 14 email to his staff that, as far as he knew, OGE did not release the letter. (Ranking Minority Member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) was also copied on Chaffetz’s letter.) But “a letter between two public institutions is not something we would have withheld,” he added.
Chaffetz was already going after Shaub in the press. He told the Washington Post that after the election, he asked Shaub to meet with him to discuss OGE’s tweets and other operations, but Shaub refused. Politico also reported that Chaffetz said Shaub had refused “since the election” to agree to a meeting to discuss certain issues.
That’s not what the emails show.
Chaffetz’s office requested the meeting in December and the congressman missed a proposed time that month, according to the emails HuffPost obtained through a public records request with OGE. (An OGE spokesman declined to comment.)
On Dec. 3, the staff director for the House oversight committee wrote in an email to OGE staff that Chaffetz wanted to schedule a meeting with Shaub.
An OGE staff member emailed the staff director at 1:17 p.m. on Dec. 8 that the office was unsure if a proposed 2:30 p.m. in-person meeting was on or not, but Shaub was available. A half-hour later, another OGE staff member emailed Shaub saying Chaffetz’s office had blamed them for skipping it: “Chairman Chaffetz’s scheduler told me: ‘The Chairman requested that I pass on the message that he is disturbed and disappointed that we weren’t able to make this happen.”
The OGE staff member seemed confused. He wrote that although OGE had proposed a phone call as opposed to meeting in person, “I never once declined an in-person meeting” and the 2:30 meeting “was never declined by us and never taken off of the table.” A staffer noted that OGE staff waited up on Capitol Hill that day and Chaffetz’s office didn’t pick up the phone.
The next day, the committee staff director wrote to OGE staff, “I’m sorry to have missed this yesterday...the Chairman’s scheduled was backed up with a hard stop for a return flight home.”
But Chaffetz nonetheless blamed OGE in the press. In an email to his staff, Shaub called the claim Chaffetz declined to meet with him “bizarre.” He added, “we have emails corroborating the fact that the Chairman is the one who cancelled the meeting.”
Chaffetz proposed a new meeting on Jan. 23. OGE expects it to address “potential reauthorization,” which refers to the fact that Congress has the authority to shutter the agency.
When discussing the upcoming Jan. 23 meeting, an OGE staff member said Chaffetz’s chief of staff “indicated she would like to de-escalate.” But Chaffetz is still pushing for the meeting to be closed to the public.
“I write to ask you to reconsider,” Shaub asked the congressman on Monday in a letter. “Allowing the public to attend our meeting—or, at the very least, to view it through live broadcast or the attendance of the news media—would ensure transparency.”
OGE emails that HuffPost obtained can be read below. Some of them have been redacted at Henshaw’s request to protect the privacy of staffers.
Every week, HuffPost Must Reads features a behind-the-scenes look at how longform journalism is made. We go under the hood. Why did the writer take that unexpected angle? How hard was it to get that source on the record? We're here to tell that story. Learn more