I recently criticized the ethics complaint filed against Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway by 15 ethics law professors. For full disclosure, Conway is one of my former students at George Washington University Law School (she graduated in 1995). I criticized the complaint as highly political with little foundation. The only aspect of the complaint that was not frivolous was the allegation that Conway violated the federal rule against endorsing commercial products in light of her comments about Ivanka’s line of clothing and jewelry. As I stated, Conway did violate the rule and I believe that she should have been punished with an official reprimand or some other equivalent measure. However, I viewed the violation as part of a tongue-in-cheek retort to the controversy. The White House reached the same conclusion that there was no “nefarious” intent but it also declined to impose any formal punishment. That decision has led to a relatively rare rebuke fromOffice of Governmental Ethics Director Walter Shaub. Referring to Conway’s “free commercial,” Shaub expressed dismay over the failure to impose any punishment and further chastised deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino for his explanation for the lack of any discipline.
In a letter sent to deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino, Office of Governmental Ethics Director Walter Shaub objected to Passantino’s suggestion that the ethics rules do not apply to White House staff. In fairness to Passantino, there is a good-faith debate over that legal issue. However, it should not have mattered since Passantio stated that, while the White House disagreed that the rules technically applied, they would follow those rules. He then however declined any discipline. (Ironically, Shaub objected to Passantino not supplying support for his proposition but Shaub does not supply much support for his opposing view).
Once again, I believe that a formal punishment was warranted even though I believe that people have blown the controversy out of proportion. In that regard, I agree with Shaub. The White House should be reaffirmed ethics principles with regard to its own staff at a time when it continues to assert that it is trying to “drain the swamp.” This is particularly the case when ranking congressional members formally asked the Ethics Office to look into the matter.
Notably, despite the controversy and calls for boycotting of the products, Ivanka Trump’s line of products has experienced record sales.