NEW YORK — President Donald Trump and his hotel and real estate business on Wednesday separately named ethics counselors, the latest step in the president’s plan to address conflicts of interest concerns that arise from his decision to maintain financial ties to his company.
Trump selected Washington attorney Stefan Passantino as his White House ethics adviser, press secretary Sean Spicer said. The announcement came the same day Trump’s company tapped a former George H.W. Bush campaign lawyer and a longtime company executive as in-house ethics monitors.
The moves come two weeks after Trump announced his plan to separate himself from his company and ensure that his two adult sons running it now won’t use their father’s position to help the business.
Ethics experts, including the head of the Office of Government Ethics, have criticized the plan, saying it doesn’t do enough to ensure that Trump won’t make decisions as president that personally benefit himself, his family or his company. One of their concerns is whether the in-house ethics monitors can be truly independent.
Spicer said that Passantino will lead a team of three attorneys in the White House who will oversee the administration’s adherence to federal ethics laws and rules.
“No one understands the ethics office better than Stefan,” Spicer said.
Passantino, whose LinkedIn profile now lists him as deputy White House counsel for compliance, formerly served as political law chairman of the firm Dentons. He also worked as general counsel for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 Republican presidential bid; Gingrich has become a close adviser to Trump.
In a statement released by the White House, Gingrich praised Passantino, as did former Democratic National Committee chairman and presidential candidate Howard Dean.
“I have a lot of confidence that he will be clear about what the ethical and legal boundaries are in his advice to the White House, and I appreciate his willingness to serve the country,” Dean said in the statement.
The Trump Organization named Bobby Burchfield, a general counsel to Bush’s re-election campaign in 1992 and attorney at the firm King & Spalding, as its in-house ethics adviser. Burchfield is also chairman of Crossroads GPS, a Karl Rove-backed political nonprofit and so-called dark money group that can raise large sums of money without disclosing its donors like traditional political action committees.
George Sorial, a longtime company executive who has been involved in several of Trump’s business deals, will serve as the chief compliance counsel, the company said.
Roy Snell, head of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, said it was unclear if the new positions had enough authority and independence to be effective. He said compliance officers typically have power to launch investigations on their own and set up programs to educate employees on ethics, assess risks and allow for anonymous reporting of ethics trouble.
Lacking that power, Snell said, the new compliance counsel could “struggle to prevent, find and fix ethical and regulatory problems.”
Phone messages left for Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten and spokeswoman Amanda Miller were not immediately returned. They also didn’t respond to emailed questions including to whom Burchfield and Sorial will report, whether they can be fired by the company’s top executives and if Burchfield will see Trump’s tax returns to assess where conflicts of interest may lie.
A six-page white paper released earlier this month by Trump lawyers about plans to address conflicts gave some detail about the new roles.
The document, produced by the Washington law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said a compliance officer will be tasked with ensuring the company was “not taking any actions that actually exploit, or even could be perceived as exploiting, the office of the presidency.” The role of ethics adviser that Burchfield is assuming would include giving written approval for any deals or actions that could “potentially raise ethics or conflicts of interest issues.”
Andrew Herman, a government ethics attorney at Washington law firm Miller & Chevalier, said he was encouraged by the selection of Burchfield because of his legal experience. However, Herman noted that the structure of Trump’s plan to separate from his businesses is “not ideal, and it’s certainly not what good government groups would like.”
The document said that the duties of the ethics adviser were laid out in a trust agreement that Trump signed turning over management of his businesses to his sons Eric and Donald Jr. as well as longtime executive Allen Weisselberg. Trump has refused to release the trust agreement as well as many other documents he says he signed as part of his plan for his businesses, making it impossible to independently verify much of what he’s said.
In a statement released by the Trump Organization, Burchfield said, “Based on my meetings with then-President-elect Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, as well as with the very capable team at The Trump Organization, I am confident that everyone is committed to the continuing operation of the businesses independently of the president, and in accord with the highest legal and ethical standards.”
Sorial, an executive vice president and counsel, has worked for the Trump Organization for about a decade, taking on roles in Trump’s international development efforts, including the building of his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland. He has been quoted in the news reports attacking neighbors who tried to block construction of the project. He also threatened to sue the BBC for running a critical documentary about the golf course.
Sorial has defended the propriety of Trump University, the real estate seminar company that hired felons and people with no real estate experience as instructors. Trump ultimately settled suits by aggrieved customers and New York’s attorney general for $25 million, though he admitted no wrongdoing.
Day reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz and Jeff Horwitz in Washington contributed to this report.