Just weeks before Donald Trump appointed Mathew Whitaker acting attorney general back in November, after Trump had ousted Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department ethics office found a problem
Whitaker has been with the DOJ since October of 2017. At that time, he was Sessions’ chief of staff. In October of 2018, the ethics office discovered that “due to an administrative error,” no one had reviewed financial disclosure forms Whitaker had submitted nearly a year earlier.
Last month the DOJ filed in court the right to access Whitaker’s records associated with his appointment.
According to BuzzFeed “the new court filing depicts a last-minute scramble to get Whitaker’s compliance with federal ethics rules in order as Trump prepared to tap him as the nation’s top law enforcement official. It adds to the timeline of a controversial appointment that raised as-yet-unresolved questions about Trump’s defiance of norms in choosing senior-level executive branch officials, and echoes broader concerns about ethics compliance across the administration.”
Once the DOJ ethics office was able to get a look at Whitaker’s financial reports, it concluded they were inadequate. The office then asked Whitaker to “create complete reports that would correctly and completely present his assets, former clients, and other potential sources of conflicts of interest.”
The financial disclosure forms submitted by senior executive branch officials are used to check for potential conflicts of interest between their finances and their work. The declaration for Whitaker’s information did not specify what the “administration error” was.
Whitaker currently works at a Kansas City, Missouri, law firm.
“Chief of staff to a Cabinet-level position is one of the most important non-Senate-confirmed positions in an agency,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Canter, a former senior ethics counsel at the Treasury Department, said the chief of staff is usually involved in a “hands-on” way with whatever is coming through the top official’s office.
Whitaker started as Sessions chief of staff on Oct. 4, 2017. Whitaker was obligated to file a “New Entrant Report” that discloses their assets, liabilities, investments, salaries and other financial ties within 30 days of starting their job. Reportedly, Whitaker was given a 14-day extension.
“The failure to check Whitaker’s forms highlights the systemic problem with the Administration getting people inside the doors first and only asking questions later, which could result in Whitaker — or others — working on matters that they shouldn’t work on. It’s too bad that ethics is taking a back seat,” Scott Amey government watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, wrote in an email.
According to Shaw’s declaration, “the DOJ ethics office contacted Whitaker on Oct. 22 to say it needed more information “o create complete reports.” Whitaker responded and his reports were updated, but on Nov. 9, two days into Whitaker’s tenure as acting attorney general — Shaw contacted his chief of staff “to pursue answers to questions that remained unresolved.”
Whitaker disclosed earning more than $1 million as executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
Shaw has not publicly shared what made her look into Whitaker’s forms.