SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz drew criticism Friday for going after the federal ethics official who spoke out against President-elect Donald Trump's handling of potential conflicts of interest.
Several government watchdog groups and congressional Democrats said the Utah Republican, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, should stay out of the way of the executive branch's chief ethics watchdog.
Chaffetz has balked at requests from Democrats for a committee investigation into Trump's business interests but Thursday sent a letter to Walter Shaub Jr., director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, summoning him for questioning.
"Your agency's mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations," Chaffetz wrote in the letter posted by The New York Times, noting the committee has jurisdiction in the House for whether the office continues.
Although the letter refers to a series of tweets from the office in November, Shaub said Wednesday that Trump should divest from his business and put his assets into a blind trust rather than put his sons in charge.
"Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective," Shaub said according to The Associated Press, the day after Trump announced his plans for his business included retaining a financial stake.
Trump's Cabinet members are required to place their assets in a blind trust, Shaub said, but the president-elect's plan doesn't meet the same standard "his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met."
The New York Times reported Shaub said Trump was leaving himself susceptible to "suspicions of corruption" because he had not gone far enough.
Chaffetz, who was traveling Friday, told the wire service that Shaub was offering opinions not backed by research. "What he's doing is highly unethical," Chaffetz said. He said his letter was drafted before Shaub's latest comments.
"All I wanted to do is try to get him to come in and talk to us," Chaffetz told The Associated Press, noting Shaub had been declining requests to meet with him since last fall.
The letter from Chaffetz to Shaub raised concerns about public comments made about Trump's Democratic opponent in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton, suggesting she didn't need to disclose some speaking fees.
That commentary "created confusion," Chaffetz wrote, because the office hadn't conducted an investigation into fees paid to the Clinton Foundation for speeches by the then-secretary of state and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
He said in the letter the committee was continuing its examination of the office's operations and told Shaub to make himself available for an interview as soon as possible but also indicated additional witnesses may be brought in.
Josh Kanter, founder of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, said Chaffetz "is selectively using his power to threaten and intimidate this independent ethics watchdog" instead of looking at the "ethical controversies" surrounding Trump.
Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said in a statement that the national nonpartisan organization sees the Utah congressman's actions as "trying to muzzle" Shaub.
She said Chaffetz's "ominous" reminder that Congress has the power to shut down the ethics office "is the latest in a disturbing series of signals about attitudes toward ethics enforcement in the new Congress and administration."61 comments on this story
The ranking Democrat on the oversight committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, joined in the criticism of Chaffetz.
He said even though no hearings have been held on Trump's "massive global entanglements," Chaffetz targeted a "key government official for warning against the risks caused by President-elect Donald Trump's current plans," the AP reported.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also weighed in.
"Instead of honoring his committee's responsibility to hold the administration accountable, Chairman Chaffetz has appointed himself President-elect Trump's chief strongman and enforcer," Pelosi said according to wire service.