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In Victory For OGE, White House Will Disclose Former Lobbyist Records

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Trump administration agreed late yesterday to disclose records regarding lobbyists that it's hired and the ethics rules that it's waived for them. The new transparency is a victory for the small 71-worker Office of Government Ethics. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: At the Office of Government Ethics, or OGE, Director Walter Shaub had set a deadline of next Thursday, June 1, for federal agencies to give them their ethics waivers but then came a bureaucratic duel. The White House challenged OGE's authority to act. And Shaub fired back with his own analysis. It looked like things were headed toward an ethics rules transparency showdown until the White House backed off.

A White House spokeswoman told The New York Times it would soon disclose its waivers. And the administration's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, wrote to Shaub that he had never sought to impede OGE. Shaub didn't have much to say.

WALTER SHAUB JR.: I really appreciated receiving director Mulvaney's letter, and I'm glad things are back on track.

OVERBY: Shaub had called on the 135 top ethics officers across the federal bureaucracy to send in all the ethics waivers issued for their agencies. The waivers allow presidential appointees to deal with issues they previously lobbied on.

In the Obama administration, waivers were routinely posted on the White House website. In contrast, the Trump administration kept them secret, which led to the clash with OGE. David Lewis teaches political science and law at Vanderbilt University.

DAVID LEWIS: In my experience, it's pretty unusual to have this kind of open conflict.

OVERBY: Lewis was interviewed before the White House agreed to release the waivers. He said that the earlier hardline stance was surprising.

LEWIS: Most presidents would work very hard to keep this out of the news because no president would want the perception that there were conflicts of interests in government.

OVERBY: OGE and the Trump White House have argued on a series of issues, starting with the president's decision not to divest his hundreds of businesses. Don Fox, a former OGE director, said it's too soon to tell how the White House decision here will affect the little agency's standing.

DON FOX: But as a former senior official, it gives me some comfort that they're showing some respect and some deference to the agency.

OVERBY: But Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21 suggested that the fight was really more about politics than ethics.

FRED WERTHEIMER: It looks like this was a pure effort to hide information from the public about the number of lobbyists they were hiring because it was in conflict with what President Trump said throughout his campaign.

OVERBY: So the next question is, how many waivers have been issued? The answer should be coming soon. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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