Responsible for investigating potential conflicts of interest within the Trump administration, Deputy White House Counsel and Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO) Stefan Passantino appears to be in violation of President Trump’s executive order requiring ethics commitments by his appointees. On Friday, several Democratic Senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, sent a letter to Passantino questioning his prior financial ties to Trump advisor Carl Icahn, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price.
“As you know, President Trump signed Executive Order 13770 on January 28, 2017, committing all political appointees in the Trump Administration to an ‘Ethics Pledge,’” wrote Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Sheldon Whitehouse, Tom Carper, Patrick Leahy, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in a joint letter to Passantino.
“Among other provisions, the Ethics Pledge requires that an appointee not ‘participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to’ any person that the appointee ‘served personally as agent, attorney, or consultant within the 2 years prior to the date of his or her appointment.’ The ban extends for two years after the date of employment.”
Within the last two years, Passantino publicly disclosed receiving more than $5,000 each year in compensation from Icahn Capital LP, a subsidiary of Icahn Enterprises. As an informal advisor, Carl Icahn has been allowed to circumvent basic ethical and conflict of interest rules applicable to federal employees while profiting from his personal relationship with the president and refusing to divest his assets.
“Ethics watchdogs have called Mr. Icahn’s arrangement ‘the purest definition of a conflict of interest that you can get.’” the letter continued. “Several of us have written to both White House Counsel Don McGahn and Mr. Icahn seeking information on Mr. Icahn’s role in the White House and any financial disclosures he has been required to file but have received no response.”
According to Passantino’s financial records, the ethics official also provided legal services to Dr. Ben Carson and Tom Price for Congress, the official campaign of now-HHS Secretary Tom Price.
“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,” the legislators wrote.
In conclusion, the senators and Rep. Cummings asked Passantino a series of questions regarding his signing of the Ethics Pledge, the nature of his legal services provided to Icahn Capital LP, and his current interactions with Icahn, Carson, and Price. Although Passantino clearly appears to be in violation of Executive Order 13770, the ethics official has not formally recused himself from any investigations into his former employers.
Neither Passantino nor the White House has responded to the legislators’ letter.