The Office of Government Ethics is back in the news as its website crashed, for the second time in less than a month, again under a flood of inquiries.
The advisory agency typically works to vet people who run the country and detangle them from financial ties that may influence their work in public office. And typically, this work happens quietly in the background when administrations transition from one president to another.
But the OGE has received an extraordinary amount of spotlight as Donald Trump has become president. OGE chief has been one of the loudest critics of Trump’s decision to remain the owner of his worldwide business empire, with its vast web of financial interests.
On Thursday, the OGE’s website was overwhelmed by a surge of clicks.
“OGE’s website, phone system and email system are receiving an extraordinary volume of contacts from citizens about recent events,” the agency said on Twitter.
OGE spokesman Vincent Salamone did not comment on the specific reasons behind the jump in inquiries. But the U.S. political news cycle on Thursday was dominated by a potential federal ethics violation by a top White House adviser, Kellyanne Conway.
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” Conway said in an interview on Fox & Friends, later adding: “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.” This came after several retail companies said they were dropping Ivanka Trump’s fashion line because of poor sales.
As NPR’s Jim Zarrolli explains, federal ethics rules bar executive branch employees from profiting through their positions, although the statute exempts the president. Conway is a White House employee, so the rules do apply to her. The OGE website does have information about the rules.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that Conway had been “counseled” over her remarks.
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings, wrote a letter to the OGE on Thursday, asking for an investigation and report on Conway’s comments.
As a preventative and advisory agency, the OGE does not have the power to investigate or prosecute, which the agency reiterated in a tweetstorm on Thursday. It said that the authority to conduct investigations belongs to the Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the FBI, Inspectors General and the Office of Special Counsel.
“When OGE learns of possible ethics violations, OGE contacts the agency, provides guidance & asks them to notify OGE of any action taken,” the agency said in a tweet. In this case of a potential administrative violation, the responsible overseers would be the White House ethics officials.
OGE’s Salamone told NPR that the ethics office’s website is, in fact, operational, it’s just buckling under heavy traffic. He declined to comment further.