Ethics lawyers and activists are slamming White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway after she took part in a “free commercial” for Ivanka Trump’s lifestyle collection, a seeming violation of a federal rule that bars public officials from using their positions to promote private business interests.
“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway said during an interview on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends program. “I’m going to give it a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody; you can find it online.”
Per 5 CFR 2635.702, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, which is listed under the heading, "Subpart G—Misuse of Position," a federal employee "shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity, including nonprofit organizations of which the employee is an officer or member, and persons with whom the employee has or seeks employment or business relations."
Subsection (c), which falls under title, "Endorsements," further notes: Government officials may not "use [their] public office for private gain." According to the statute, "An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public of- fice to endorse any product, service or enterprise."
An example cited within this section of the statute reads: "A Commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission may not appear in a television commercial in which she endorses an electrical appliance produced by her former employer, stating that it has been found by the CPSC to be safe for residential use."
Will Conway Come Under Fire?
As set forth by federal ethics regulations, the employee’s agency - which, in Conway’s case is the White House - is responsible for enforcing the rules, though the Office of Government Ethics, which has publicly clashed with Trump over his own potential conflicts of interest, could recommend disciplinary actions.
According to Bloomberg, "Enforcing that rule will be left up to the White House itself - or a federal agency that has traditionally shown little interest in launching investigations, legal specialists said. Conway’s unusual product endorsement from the White House briefing room came in response to reports that retailers, including Nordstrom Inc., have been dropping Ivanka Trump’s apparel due to lack of sales."
Robert Weissman, president of progressive activist group Public Citizen, told the publication that Conway’s remarks demonstrate that the Trump administration “will use the government apparatus to advance the interests of the family businesses.” "Anyone harboring illusions that there was some separation between the Trump administration and the Trump family businesses has had their fantasy shattered,” he further noted.
The Office of Government Ethics and/or White House could - in theory - issue a reprimand, suspension, demotion or removal from office, according to federal regulations. They both also have the option of waiving the rule in particular cases or requiring offending employees to receive ethics counseling.
Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, said in an e-mail that it’s unlikely that the Office of Government Ethics will take up the matter because of its longstanding position of not being an investigative agency.