Trump’s top health official traded tobacco stock while leading anti-smoking efforts

The Trump administration’s top public health official bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her leadership of the agency charged with reducing tobacco use — the leading cause of preventable disease and death and an issue she had long championed.

The stock was one of about a dozen new investments that Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made after she took over the agency’s top job, according to documents obtained by POLITICO. Fitzgerald has since come under congressional scrutiny for slow walking divestment from older holdings that government officials said posed potential conflicts of interest.

Buying shares of tobacco companies raises even more flags than Fitzgerald’s trading in drug and food companies because it stands in such stark contrast to the CDC’s mission to persuade smokers to quit and keep children from becoming addicted. Critics say her trading behavior broke with ethical norms for public health officials and was, at best, sloppy. At worst, they say, it was legally problematic if she didn’t recuse herself from government activities that could have affected her investments.

“You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance,” said Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007. He described the move as “tone deaf,” given the CDC’s role in leading anti-smoking efforts.

Even if Fitzgerald, a medical doctor and former Georgia Department of Public Health commissioner, met all of the legal requirements, “it stinks to high heaven,” Painter said.

A Health and Human Services Department spokesman confirmed “the potentially conflicting” stock purchases, saying they were handled by her financial manager and that she subsequently sold them.

“Like all presidential personnel, Dr. Fitzgerald’s financial holdings were reviewed by the HHS Ethics Office, and she was instructed to divest of certain holdings that may pose a conflict of interest. During the divestiture process, her financial account manager purchased some potentially conflicting stock holdings. These additional purchases did not change the scope of Dr. Fitzgerald’s recusal obligations, and Dr. Fitzgerald has since also divested of these newly acquired potentially conflicting publicly traded stock holdings.”

After assuming the CDC leadership on July 7, Fitzgerald bought tens of thousands of dollars in new stock holdings in at least a dozen companies later that month as well as in August and September, according to records obtained under the Stock Act, which requires disclosures of transactions over $1,000. Purchases included between $1,001 and $15,000 of Japan Tobacco, one of the largest such companies in the world, which sells four tobacco brands in the U.S. through a subsidiary.

The purchases also include between $1,001 and $15,000 each in Merck & Co., Bayer and health insurance company Humana, as well as between $15,001 and $50,000 in US Food Holding Co., according to financial disclosure documents.

On Aug. 9, one day after purchasing stock in global giant Japan Tobacco, she toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, which researches how the chemicals in tobacco harm human health, according to financial forms obtained from HHS’ Office of Government Ethics and calendars obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The records confirm that Fitzgerald sold the shares of tobacco on Oct. 26 and all of her stock holdings above $1,000 by Nov. 21, more than four months after she became CDC director.

Fitzgerald, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has made tobacco efforts a focus of her public health career, despite owning stock in the industry. She listed tobacco cessation as one of her primary priorities while still serving in the Georgia position in February 2017. Prior to accepting the CDC position, she owned stock in five other tobacco companies: Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, and Altria Group Inc. — all legal under Georgia’s ethics rules. HHS did not respond to questions about why she invested in tobacco companies while working to reduce tobacco consumption.

“It’s stunning,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It sends two messages, both of which are deeply disturbing. First, it undermines the credibility of a public official when they argue that tobacco is the No. 1 preventable cause of disease. Second, and perhaps even worse, it indicates a public official is willing to put their personal profit above the ethics of investing in a company whose products cause so much harm.”

“It gives you a window, I think, into her value system,” said Kathleen Clark, a professor of law focusing on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis. “It doesn’t make her a criminal, but it does raise the question of what are her commitments? What are her values, and are they consistent with this government agency that is dedicated to the public health? Frankly, she loses some credibility.”

While holding the newly purchased tobacco, drug company and food stock, along with other financial holdings in various health companies, Fitzgerald participated in meetings related to the opioid crisis, hurricane response efforts, cancer and obesity, stroke prevention, polio, Zika and Ebola, according to a copy of her schedule between Aug. 1 and Oct. 27.

Merck, whose stock Fitzgerald purchased on Aug. 9, has been working on developing an Ebola vaccine and also makes HIV medications. Bayer, whose stock she purchased on Aug. 10, has in the past partnered with the CDC Foundation, which works closely with the CDC, to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

“If she participated in meetings in which she has financial conflicts of interest, that is not fine in my book,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. Because some of the meetings took place before Fitzgerald had an ethics agreement, Holman said she “could have an easy avenue for excusing herself,” by saying she didn’t understand it was a conflict, or arguing she didn’t make decisions in those meetings. “But that is not how the law should be applied,” he added. “Even if you could claim you didn’t speak up at those meetings, your presence poses a conflict of interest.”

But it could have been possible for Fitzgerald to participate in briefings on topics like tobacco or Ebola without violating government ethics policy, depending on her role, said a former government ethics official. For example, if Fitzgerald was just in listening mode and not making any substantive comments or decisions, she would likely be within the rules, the official said.

Fitzgerald has already been criticized by some lawmakers for her inability to offload two financial holdings, which date to before she became CDC director and left her unable to perform some tasks, such as testifying in front of lawmakers. An HHS spokesperson said she is actively working to address her remaining recusal obligations related to the two companies, adding that both have “complex transfer restrictions.”

HHS officials said Fitzgerald’s lengthy divestment process was due to her complicated stock portfolio. They declined to say whether she had any ethics training. She didn’t enter into a formal ethics agreement with HHS until two months after taking office.

“It’s a little concerning it took two months to get her ethics agreement signed and an additional month for her to dump conflicting stock,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The Health and Human Services Department declined to respond to detailed questions about Fitzgerald’s investments, including whether she herself approved the transactions and what activities and decisions she recused herself from due to her holdings.

Normally, senior government officials commence the process of outlining their conflicts of interest before they assume a job, so that they can quickly divest within days of taking office, a former HHS senior legal counsel told POLITICO.

HHS lawyers usually advise employees to avoid purchasing new stock during an interim period, particularly in areas where they would likely need to divest. Fitzgerald’s ethics agreement, dated Sept. 7, identified nearly all the companies in which she bought stocks on the job as conflicts of interest.

But officials are liable for their actions, regardless of whether they have an ethics agreement in place or have been warned by ethics officials that a financial holding is a conflict, multiple former government ethics officials told POLITICO.

One reason Fitzgerald’s divestment may have taken so long is that the Office of Government Ethics has little ability to force government officials to speedily address financial conflicts, unless they are undergoing a Senate confirmation process, said Walter Shaub, who directed the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. The CDC director is not a Senate-confirmable post.

“There is a lot less transparency around the non-Senate confirmed individuals … and the ethics process lags, even though the rules still apply,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a government oversight group. “Those folks put themselves at risk by not getting clearance and understanding the rules.”

[Politico]

Officials raised ethics concerns over Ben Carson’s son assisting HUD event

Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expressed concerns that Secretary Ben Carson recently risked violating ethics rules by getting family help in organizing a HUD event last year, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Linda Cruciani, HUD’s deputy general counsel for operations, and other department officials were reportedly uneasy that Carson’s son and daughter-in-law were involved with last summer’s “listening tour” event in Baltimore.

They worried that Ben Carson Jr., who is a local businessman, was inviting potential business associates to the event, which “gave the appearance that the secretary may be using his position for his son’s private gain,” according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post.

Carson denies any conflict of interest. He said in a statement to the newspaper that his family has “never influenced any decision at HUD.”

The event in question was reportedly aimed at gathering feedback from area business leaders. Carson’s wife, son and daughter-in-law ultimately attended multiple events in Baltimore last summer, according to the Post.

Carson Jr. reportedly promised Cruciani ahead of the event that “nothing we would do would be near a conflict.”

It is not the first time questions have been raised over Carson’s family involvement in his work, but Carson has repeatedly denied that his family overtly influences HUD decisions.

Carson, who briefly ran for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, was one of President Trump‘s earliest supporters after dropping out of the race. He was confirmed last March to be HUD secretary by a 58-41 vote, despite controversy over his lack of government experience.

Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, has rejected such criticisms, saying successful leaders surround themselves with the right people.

“I liken it to the CEO of a large medical center,” he said at an event last October. “They probably don’t know about infectious disease, or neurosurgery, or anesthesia or pathology. But they have a lot of people who do know a lot about those things.”

[The Hill]

Trump ‘asked acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe how he voted’

After firing James Comey as director of the FBI, US President Donald Trump asked the agency’s deputy director whom he had voted for, US media report.

Andrew McCabe, who had just become the agency’s acting chief after the surprise dismissal last year, said that he did not vote in the 2016 election.

FBI special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Mr Comey’s firing was an attempt to obstruct justice.

Mr Mueller leads the probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

During Mr McCabe’s introductory meeting with the president after he took over the federal law enforcement agency, Mr Trump also allegedly expressed anger with Mr McCabe over his wife’s ties to the Clinton family.

Mr McCabe reportedly found the conversation “disturbing”, according to the Washington Post.

Jill McCabe, a failed Democratic candidate for the Virginia state senate, had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a political action committee controlled by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally.

Last July, Mr Trump told the New York Times: “We have a director of the FBI, acting, who received $700,000, whose wife received $700,000 from, essentially, Hillary Clinton.”

He also erroneously claimed in a subsequent tweet that Mr McCabe had led the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email during her time as US secretary of state.

Mr McCabe had recused himself from any investigations involving Virginia political figures, but Republicans have questioned why he was allowed to be involved in the investigations into Mrs Clinton’s emails, claiming he has a conflict of interest.

The FBI has said that Mrs McCabe’s campaign had ended months before Mr McCabe became involved in that investigation, which he later recused himself from as the date of the presidential election neared.

[BBC News]

Israel invested in “Mideast peace” Trump adviser Jared Kushner

A new report indicates that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner holds a series of strong and shady financial ties to Israel, even as the administration insists he serves as a legitimate broker for potential peace efforts in the Middle East.

His family real estate business, Kushner Companies, received a $30 million investment from Menora Mivtachim, an insurer that is one of the largest financial institutions in Israel, The New York Times reported. The deal was private and took place shortly before Kushner and Trump visited Israel in May on their first diplomatic trip.

The deal “pumped significant new equity into 10 Maryland apartment complexes controlled by Mr. Kushner’s firm,” the Times reported. Despite the fact that Kushner sold parts of his business upon taking a job in the White House, he still holds a significant share in his family’s company, which include the Baltimore-area apartment buildings.

But the Menora deal only scratches the surface of Kushner’s financial conflicts of interests in the region that make the prospect of a fair solution seem bleak at the absolute best.

“The ethics laws were not crafted by people who had the foresight to imagine a Donald Trump or a Jared Kushner, Robert Weissman, the president of the nonprofit government ethics group, Public Citizen, told the Times. “No one could ever imagine this scale of ongoing business interests, not in a local peanut farm or a hardware store but sprawling global businesses that give the president and his top adviser personal economic stakes in an astounding number of policy interests.”

The Trump administration has defended itself, with a White House official saying Kushner “takes the ethics rules very seriously and would never compromise himself or the administration,” the Times reported.

Kushner’s disclosure forms had “100 errors and omissions and multiple updates,” Newsweek reported in October.

Kushner’s family foundation also continues to donate heavily to a group that constructs the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a group largely seen as “one of the main obstacles to a two-state solution,” ProPublica reported.

The Kushners have also engaged in real estate deals with “at least one member of Israel’s wealthy Steinmetz family to buy nearly $200 million of Manhattan apartment buildings, as well as to build a luxury rental tower in New Jersey.” Beny Steinmetz, the most well-known member of the family, is the subject of a bribery investigation by the Justice Department, the Times reported.

“A lot of people wonder whether the United States has ever been an honest broker in the Middle East, and given the positions of the Trump administration, it’s probably even more vulnerable to those claims,” Richard W. Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for the Bush administration told the Times. Using Kushner, the U.S. is “sending over a special envoy who has already identified himself personally more with the hawkish views,” he added.
“He [Kushner] is getting money from wealthy citizens and businesses in one particular country,” Painter said. “You’ve got a situation that is going to be abused by people who don’t like the United States. He’s going to make it that much worse.”

The Kushner family ties to Israel obviously run quite deep, and it’s difficult to imagine the president’s son-in-law as a fair and unbiased broker of a solution for peace in the Middle East — especially with zero prior experience of diplomatic work. Trump has received international condemnation for his brash decision, which has only further stoked tensions with the Palestinians, as well as isolated the U.S. and Israel.

[Salon]

Trump’s lawyer wants second special counsel to probe investigators

President Trump‘s legal team said Tuesday it would like a new special counsel to be appointed to probe individuals investigating Russian election meddling.

“The Department of Justice and FBI can not ignore the multiple problems that have been created by these obvious conflicts of interests. These new revelations require the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate,” one of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, said in a statement.

Sekulow’s statement calling for a second special counsel, which was first reported by Axios, comes after Fox News published an article on Monday that said the wife of an official in the Justice Department was employed during the campaign by Fusion GPS, the opposition firm behind a controversial dossier of Trump opposition research.

The president’s attorneys, according to Axios, fault the FBI and the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the probe into Russia’s election meddling and any potential ties between Trump campaign staff members and the Kremlin.

Trump has repeatedly called the probe a “witch hunt,” arguing Democrats are using Russia’s attempts to interfere in last year’s presidential election as an excuse for their loss.

“As the phony Russian Witch Hunt continues, two groups are laughing at this excuse for a lost election taking hold, Democrats and Russians!” Trump said in July.

[The Hill]

Reality

Trump’s lawyers display a fundamental misunderstanding of how special councils work. First, there has to be a crime, and Mueller and the FBI haven’t committed one. Second, a Special Council office was created because of the recusals of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Rod Rosenstein. And finally, a President of the United States calling for an investigation into the investigators, who have already secured two indictments and another two pleas, is not what happens in a democracy.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Requested Government Jet for European Honeymoon

Secretary Steven Mnuchin requested use of a government jet to take him and his wife on their honeymoon in Scotland, France and Italy earlier this summer, sparking an “inquiry” by the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General, sources tell ABC News.

Officials familiar with the matter say the highly unusual ask for a U.S. Air Force jet, which according to an Air Force spokesman could cost roughly $25,000 per hour to operate, was put in writing by the secretary’s office but eventually deemed unnecessary after further consideration of by Treasury Department officials.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview with ABC News that Mnuchin’s request for a government jet on his honeymoon defies common sense.

“You don’t need a giant rulebook of government requirements to just say yourself, ‘This is common sense, it’s wrong,'” Wyden said. “That’s just slap your forehead stuff.”

Mnuchin, an independently wealthy former Goldman Sachs banker, has already triggered a review of his travel for using government jet to travel to Louisville and Fort Knox, Kentucky last month. The inspector general is reviewing whether he improperly used that trip to catch a prime view of the solar eclipse with his wife, a Scottish actress and model named Louise Linton.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) met with Mnuchin during that trip and tweeted a photo of them watching the eclipse together, complete with proper eyewear.

Mnuchin’s office denied he took that trip to watch the eclipse and said he was there to attend meetings on tax reform, and the Treasury Department said the Mnuchins would reimburse the government for Linton’s travel costs.

An official within The Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General said that in addition to reviewing the Kentucky trip, it has started an official “inquiry” into Mnuchin’s honeymoon travel request.

A spokesman for the Treasury Department told ABC News that the secretary requested government travel for his honeymoon out of a concern for maintaining a secure method of communication.

“The Secretary is a member of the National Security Council and has responsibility for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence,” the spokesman said in a statement. “It is imperative that he have access to secure communications, and it is our practice to consider a wide range of options to ensure he has these capabilities during his travel, including the possible use of military aircraft.”

The spokesman added the secretary’s office ultimately decided the use of military aircraft was “unnecessary” after it became apparent that other methods for secure communication were available.

Aside from the President and Vice President, travel on military aircraft is typically reserved for cabinet members who deal directly with national security, such as the Secretaries of Defense and State.

One senior Treasury official who has worked with a number of past secretaries said that military aircraft are only used in “extreme” circumstances, such as if the secretary had to be rushed back to a meeting in Washington, D.C., with the President.

Another former senior Treasury official who worked closely with Mnuchin’s predecessor, Secretary Jack Lew, said it would have been “exceedingly rare” for Secretary Lew to use military aircraft for official business. The only exception to the rule was foreign business travel. As for private travel, “there’s not a chance in hell that Secretary Lew would have considered using military air,” this former official said.

Adam Stump, a spokesman with the Department of Defense, which oversees and operates all government air travel for the executive branch, declined to comment on the specific request made by Mnuchin’s office but cited existing departmental policies regarding the use of government aircraft.

“Generally, when other federal executive agency’s request use of military airlift, it is provided on a reimbursable basis pursuant to Title 31 U.S.C., section 1535 and 1536, otherwise known as the ‘Economy Act,’” Stump said.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a Washington, DC-based ethics watchdog, was critical of Mnuchin’s request.

“People can do whatever they want on their own time, on their vacations and in the houses that they live in, but they can’t be expecting taxpayers to foot the bill for a Hollywood lifestyle,” Bookbinder said.

Meanwhile, Mnuchin’s wife managed to stir her own controversy surrounding that August trip to Kentucky when she lashed out at a stranger on Instagram, an incident for which she later issued a public apology. Linton posted a photo of herself and her husband stepping off a government jet and wrote, “Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #countryside.”

She went on to include hashtags of various luxury designers she was wearing: “#rolandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa,” prompting one user to reply, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.”

Linton responded by belittling the woman in a series of comments and even mentioned her honeymoon.

“Aw!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Did you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol.”

Two people familiar with the matter say Linton was not aware that her husband had requested government travel for their honeymoon before making that comment.

[ABC News]

White House: ESPN anchor that called Trump racist should be fired

An ESPN anchor who called President Trump a white supremacist should be fired, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

“That is one of the more outrageous comments that anybody could make and certainly is something that is a fireable offense by ESPN,” Sanders said.

ESPN has reprimanded Jemele Hill, an African-American woman who co-hosts a show called “SC6 with Michael and Jemele,” for a string of tweets sent out over the weekend calling Trump and his supporters white supremacists.

An ESPN anchor who called President Trump a white supremacist should be fired, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

“That is one of the more outrageous comments that anybody could make and certainly is something that is a fireable offense by ESPN,” Sanders said.

ESPN has reprimanded Jemele Hill, an African-American woman who co-hosts a show called “SC6 with Michael and Jemele,” for a string of tweets sent out over the weekend calling Trump and his supporters white supremacists.

In a statement, ESPN sought to distance itself from Smith’s remarks.

“The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the president do not represent the position of ESPN,” the network said. “We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”

But many on the right are fuming, believing that it is the latest in a string of incidents that reveal ESPN’s liberal bias.

Sanders on Tuesday defended Trump, saying that he had met recently with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is black, and other “highly respected leaders in the African-American community” and that he is “committed to working with them to bring the country together.”

“That’s where we need to be focused, not on outrageous statements like this one,” Sanders said.

[The Hill]

Reality

You know who else thinks Donald Trump is a white supremacist? Congress. Who a few days after passed a resolution forcing Trump to officially denounce white supremacy.

In any event, Sarah Huckabee Sanders at best was highly inappropriate to user her federal position to influence private employment decisions, and at worse she may have broken the law.

This law essentially states certain government employees — including the president, vice president and “any other executive branch employee” — are prohibited from influencing the employment decisions or practices of a private entity (such as ESPN) “solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation.”

Breaking this law can lead to a fine or imprisonment up to 15 years — possibly both — and could lead to disqualification from “holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”

 

Scaramucci Asks FBI to Investigate Priebus For “Leaking” a Public Disclosure Form

In baffling tweet on Wednesday night, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci appeared to accuse Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of leaking his financial disclosure form.

https://twitter.com/Scaramucci/status/890401606893809664

The tweet came after a Politico report revealed Scaramucci will still benefit from his hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, while at the White House. Along with his accusation, Scaramucci vowed to have the FBI and DOJ (two entities his principal, Donald Trump, has repeatedly berated) investigate what he described as a “felonious” leak. Scaramucci tagged @Reince45 in the post, which generated ample confusion until the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza clarified that the communications director did indeed mean he wants the FBI and DOJ to investigate Priebus over the matter.

The Department of Justice even chimed in, insisting it will look in to Scaramucci’s request:

Financial disclosure forms are public documents, and are eventually made available online via the White House website

[Raw Story]

Ethics Chief Accuses Reince Priebus of Making ‘Explicit Threat’ to Silence His Complaints About Trump

Outgoing Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub Jr. accused White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of making a “fairly explicit threat” in an attempt to quell criticism of President Donald Trump’s refusal to divest from his businesses.

During a Sunday interview on ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos recalled that Priebus had warned Shaub to “be careful” speaking out after Trump announced that he would not sell his assets or place them in a blind trust as recent presidents have done.

“Did White House pressure have anything to do with your decision to resign?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“I think the fairly explicit threat from Reince Priebus really is emblematic of how the interactions with the White House have been since the beginning of this administration,” Shaub explained, adding that he was not “pushed out.”

“I really always thought the ethics rules were strong enough to protect the integrity of the government’s operations,” Shaub continued. “My recent experiences have convinced me that they need strengthening. And frankly, they convinced me that that I achieved that all I could possibly achieve in this job.”

[Raw Story]

Media

Oil Lobby Met With Trump Interior Secretary at Trump Hotel

The oil industry’s most powerful lobbying group met on March 23 with President Trump’s interior secretary at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. It also happened to be the same day the administration killed a rule that oil companies opposed.

The location of the meeting is raising eyebrows and ethical questions. The Trump International Hotel, situated just blocks from the White House, is ground zero for companies and foreign leaders who may be trying to cozy up to the president by using his properties, critics and ethics experts fear.

“It creates the appearance they are currying favor” by staying at a Trump hotel, said Lawrence Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog.

Noble, a CNN contributor, said while the meeting may not violate specific ethics rules, it shows that companies have discovered a “not-so-subtle way of showing support for the president.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addressed the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) board of directors on that day at the Trump International Hotel, according to Zinke’s recently-released schedule.

Zinke, a strong advocate of the oil industry, spoke for 10 minutes, and then held a brief question-and-answer session, the Interior Department confirmed in a statement to CNNMoney.

That same day, the Interior Department announced plans to get rid of an Obama-era rule toughening standards on how much fossil fuel companies owe the government for drilling and mining on federal land. The energy industry had fought the rule. The oil industry group had even filed a lawsuit against it in December 2016.

The very next day, on March 24, the API put out a statement saying it was “pleased” by the Interior Department’s decision to get rid of the rule’s “substantial burdens.”

The Interior Department defended Zinke’s appearance at the API event.

“Like many secretaries before him, the Secretary was invited to speak at API’s meeting and he accepted the invitation. There is nothing unusual about a secretary speaking to stakeholders,” Heather Swift, a spokesperson for the department, said in a statement.

Swift said Zinke spoke about his “goals for the Department of the Interior and American energy.”

The Interior Department’s ethics office said it had “thoroughly vetted” Zinke’s API meeting. “We found that it presented no ethics violation or conflict of interest,” the ethics office said.

Noble, the ethics expert, agrees that meeting with an industry group “in and of itself is not unusual” as long as Zinke didn’t insist the gathering take place at a Trump hotel. There’s no evidence that Zinke picked the location of the API meeting.

It’s not clear how much the API spent on holding the meeting at the Trump International Hotel. Events at the hotel likely cost at least $100,000, The Washington Post has previously reported.

Neither the API nor the Trump Organization responded to requests for comment.

Zinke’s schedule doesn’t indicate who attended the meeting with API, which is chaired by ConocoPhillips (COP) CEO Ryan Lance.

The Trump International Hotel, which opened last September on the grounds of a renovated post office, has been a lightning rod for controversy. The Trump Organization rents space for the hotel from the General Services Administration, an agency of the Untied States government.

As president, Trump oversees the GSA, which makes him effectively both landlord and tenant.

Critics have argued the hotel violates the lease terms because there is a clause saying no government official can be a party to the 60-year lease that was signed in 2013.

In March, the federal government ruled that the hotel is not in violation of its lease. The GSA cited Trump’s decision to transfer control of his vast business empire to his sons and a Trump Organization executive.

However, Trump is still the ultimate beneficiary of the success of the company and the hotel.

Noble said there’s an easy way to resolve concerns about such conflicts involving Trump’s hotel.

“Just decide you won’t do any government business at the president’s hotel. Set a rule,” he said.

[CNN]

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