Trump Ethics Watchdog Pick Pledges More Measured Twitter Posts

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the federal ethics agency that oversees him and his administration signaled he would be more restrained than his predecessor was when it comes to posting messages on Twitter.

“It will be crystal clear when there are official statements made,” Emory Rounds, a career civil servant nominated for the top job at the Office of Government Ethics, said when asked about social media use on Wednesday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “I do not intend to make as director any unofficial statements.”

Former OGE director Walter Shaub clashed with Trump and his team over ethics issues, notably Trump’s decision not to divest his assets. Shaub took the highly unusual step for an OGE director of publicly criticizing the president’s decision. The acrimony began in November with a series of Twitter postings in which Shaub prematurely -- and incorrectly -- congratulated Trump for agreeing to divest.

The OGE has faulted Trump for not divesting his business empire, which he valued at a minimum of $1.4 billion, and for failing to disclose a $130,000 debt incurred in connection with a nondisclosure agreement with an adult entertainer in the weeks before the election.

Still, Rounds emphasized that the agency would maintain its independence if he’s confirmed. “The office of government ethics has not been shy and will not be shy in the future,” he said.

‘Intense Suspicion’

OGE reviews compliance with ethics laws but has no investigative authority, and refers potential violations to inspectors general or the Justice Department. The agency’s main goal is to ensure impartial government decisions by removing conflicts of interest.

“In the current climate of intense partisanship and intense suspicion, the importance of this role cannot be overstated,” said Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat. During the hearing, Jones suggested expanding OGE’s powers to address the “novel conflicts of interest situations” raised by the Trump administration.

Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, who presided over the meeting, asked Rounds to confer with senators if OGE needed more powers to accomplish its mission -- Rounds agreed.

“The nature of financial interests that we see in financial disclosures has changed and evolved,” Rounds said. "OGE has to evolve in many ways with those changes."

Rounds also told the committee that executive branch leaders must foster ethical culture by example. “The default must be on the side of over-compliance rather than the testing of any limits, ” Rounds said. He added that OGE is “under-funded, under-staffed, over-missioned, and to a great extent under-appreciated.”

‘Excellent Choice’

Last week, OGE’s acting director David Apol concluded that a debt incurred in October 2016, when Michael Cohen paid $130,000 to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels as part of a nondisclosure agreement, should have been listed on the annual form listing Trump’s assets, sources of income and financial obligations.

Apol sent a letter to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, pointing out the omission. On his most recent financial disclosure form, covering calendar year 2017 and filed on May 15, Trump described the debt as “expenses” that were not required to be disclosed.

Rounds, who joined OGE in 2009 and most recently served as associate counsel, previously worked in the ethics office of the Commerce Department and in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He was also deputy to Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s White House ethics officer and a fierce critic of Trump and his administration. Painter, who’s currently running for a Senate seat in Montana, tweeted that Rounds is an “excellent choice.”

Shaub has also endorsed Rounds to lead the agency.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.