Senator tries to paper over lack of ethics transparency for Trump Education pick

The first issue on the table at Betsy DeVos’ hearing: her unknown potential conflicts of interest.

Betsy DeVos, nominee for Education Secretary, at her hearing on Tuesday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Betsy DeVos, nominee for Education Secretary, at her hearing on Tuesday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee began its hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s selection to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, despite the fact that her ethics review still isn’t complete.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the committee, papered over that quandary as he opened DeVos’s hearing on Tuesday evening. Saying that he was merely “mak[ing] a word about process,” he justified moving ahead with the hearing even though his committee had not yet received a letter from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) outlining any potential conflicts of interest that DeVos may have.

“We will have a letter from that office… which will be an agreement between Mrs. DeVos and that office on how to deal with any conflicts of interest before we vote in committee on her nomination,” he said.

This flies in the face of precedent, and indeed what Republicans demanded of President Obama’s nominees. Senate norms demands that all ethics reviews by the OGE, as well as FBI background checks, be completed before the Senate begins considering nominees.

At DeVos’s hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the committee, immediately fired back. “I am extremely disappointed that we are moving forward with this hearing before receiving the proper paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics,” she said, calling the decision to hold the hearing anyway “cutting corners and rushing nominees through.”

As Murray herself pointed out, in 2008 Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sent a letter to then-Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid requesting that all OGE letters be completed and submitted with time for review before any committee hearings on President Obama’s nominees.

But this process has not been completed with many of Trump’s nominees, including DeVos, despite the fact that Republican senators have moved forward with hearings. This fact has set off alarms at the OGE, and Director Walter Shaub sent senators a letter two weeks ago voicing his “great concern” that hearings were moving forward before the process is complete.

“[I]t has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings,” he wrote. “I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since the OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.”