AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Atlanta attorney's first big statement as Trump's ethics officer causes a stir

Atlanta attorney Stefan Passantino's letter regarding Kellyanne Conway's televised plug for Ivanka Trump's line of clothing and jewelry is drawing some attention, in part because of a claim that the president's inner circle may not have to abide by all federal ethics laws.

President Donald Trump appointed Passantino, a former head of the political law section at the multi-national law firm Dentons, as his deputy  counsel for ethics and compliance about five weeks ago. He hadn't been on the job long before Conway, Trump's White House counselor, appeared on Fox & Friends, and while defending a presidential Twitter takedown of Nordstrom's decision to pull the presidential daughter's retail line, dropped a weird plug.

“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would say,” Conway said. “I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody; you can find it online.”

The comments drew immediate complaints to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics claiming Conway had violated federal ethics rules by promoting a commercial product for personal gain or to benefit a family member or friend. OGE Director Walter Shaub wrote a letter to the White House asking for an investigation into what appeared to be "a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position."

In his Feb. 28 letter to the OGE, Passantino essentially said Conway was kidding.

"It is noted that Ms. Conway made the statement in question in a light, off-hand manner while attempting to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated and did so without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally," he wrote.

Passantino did say that he advised Conway that her comments "implicated the prohibition on using one's official position to endorse any product or service" and said she is "highly unlikely to do so again."

But a piece reported by National Public Radio political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben focuses a sentence in the letter where Passantino argues that Conway and other employees of the Executive Office of the President are not bound by "many" federal ethics regulations.

In the NPR story, former ethics offices for the Obama and George W. Bush administrations say the argument is a departure from the prior understanding. Richard Painter, Bush's ethics officer, has been extremely critical of the lack of disclosure from the president and urged the OGE to press Passantino on what rules he believes Trump's staff can ignore. Norman Eisen, Obama's ethics chief, called Passantino's argument "nonsense."

Some of this may be a difference of perspective.

Painter is a law professor at the University of Minnesota and author of a book on ethics reform ("Getting the Government America Deserves"). Eisen, who later served as ambassador to the Czech Republic, is a government studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. Both men are lawyers who served in private practice, but their resumes are more varied.

On the other hand, Passantino is a private practice attorney who has spent his career defending Republican politicians from ethics charges. He is highly regarded, particularly from people like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who depend on Passantino to be their advocate when their ethics were called into question.

This letter shows why Passantino is so well regarded as a defense attorney: Not only is his client not guilty, but your laws may not even apply to her.

You can read more about Passantino's appointment to the White House here.

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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.