04.21.17

Members of Congress Raise Ethics Concerns about Deputy White House Counsel

U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Conn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Friday sent a letter to Stefan Passantino, Deputy White House Counsel and Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO), questioning his previous financial connections to Carl Icahn, as well as other Trump Administration officials, and the resulting conflicts of interest in his current role.

Recent Office of Government Ethics disclosures made by Mr. Passantino reveal that he did legal work for Mr. Icahn prior to joining the Trump Administration, and also provided legal services to Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Dr. Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services, prior to their Cabinet nominations.

The Members of Congress raised particular questions about Mr. Passantino and his relationship with Mr. Icahn, whom the White House has designated as an informal advisor, circumventing basic ethical and conflict of interest rules applicable to federal employees. In his capacity as the DAEO for the Executive Office of the President, Mr. Passantino is "responsible for ensuring that the classification of Mr. Icahn is appropriate, determining which ethics rules do and do not apply to Mr. Icahn, and ensuring that Mr. Icahn is complying with these rules," according to the letter.

Given Mr. Passantino's role in approving and enforcing ethics requirements, and his previous relationship with Mr. Icahn, the Members of Congress expressed concerns about an obvious conflict of interest. Federal ethics regulations require executive branch employees to "avoid an appearance of loss of impartiality" and state that they "should not participate in a particular matter" with individuals "for whom the employee has, within the last year, served as officer, director, trustee, general partner, agent, attorney, consultant, contractor or employee."

The Members of Congress asked Mr. Passantino to clarify the services he provided to Icahn Capital LP before assuming his current position, and if he has since provided input on matters related to Mr. Icahn's current designation as a special adviser. They posed similar questions about his communications as the top ethics lawyer for the White House with his former clients, Secretary Carson and Secretary Price. In addition, the Members asked whether Mr. Passantino had signed the Ethics Pledge outlined in Executive Order 13770, or if he had received any conflict of interest waivers.

"While it is possible that you have properly recused yourself from any dealings relating to your former clients, the White House's lack of transparency in making public any recusal or waiver forms necessitates that we seek formal answers," wrote the Members.

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