Ethics Office Gets A New Chief

Feb 11, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Office of Government Ethics, the tiny agency with a big job in the era of President Trump, is getting a new chief. And some of Trump's toughest critics on ethics matters are cheering his pick. NPR's Peter Overby tells us more.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Emory Rounds is a career civil servant. He was a deputy ethics counsel in the White House under President George W. Bush. And since 2009, he's been at OGE.

RICHARD PAINTER: He is somebody who plays it by the book.

OVERBY: Richard Painter was ethics counsel to President Bush. Rounds was his deputy.

PAINTER: I did not know whether he was a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. He didn't consider it relevant, and neither did I.

OVERBY: Now Painter's vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that's suing Trump on ethics issues. He said government ethics rules are under pressure.

PAINTER: The Trump administration is much more reluctant to ask people to divest of financial holdings that create conflicts of interest. The president himself has not set a good example.

OVERBY: The selection of Emory Rounds looks like pretty much the opposite of this president's hiring pattern for key agency leaders. Trump has often installed outsiders who walk in the door suspicious of the agency they're going to run. So this seems to be good news for OGE and its staff of about 70. A year ago, then-Director Walter Shaub was locked in combat with the White House. The biggest issue - Trump's refusal to give up his business empire with its conflicts of interest. OGE can advise, but it can't enforce. Before Trump was inaugurated, Shaub challenged him in a speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

WALTER SHAUB: Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?

OVERBY: Shaub resigned last July. The controversies continued - just at a lower decibel level. The acting director, David Apol, recently OK'd a legal defense fund for White House aides who get caught up in the Russia investigation. Critics say the fund will give the White House leverage over staffers who testify. An OGE spokesperson said Rounds and Apol wouldn't comment for this story. If Rounds wins Senate confirmation, he'll have a five-year term.

DON FOX: The guy just has so much integrity.

OVERBY: Don Fox has served as general counsel and acting director of OGE.

FOX: I can't imagine any White House ever being able to - pressuring him into doing anything that he did not think was legal, appropriate or really in the best interest of the country.

PAINTER: In 2009, Walter Shaub and Don Fox recruited Rounds for the ethics agency. Shaub told NPR that Rounds is the right guy for these particular times. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.