Former govt. ethics chief to CNN: Biden must address conflict of interest with brother

The former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration and, for a short time under the Trump administration, said Monday that President Joe Biden’s White House needs to address the “appearance” of impropriety regarding a law firm that employs his brother.

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Walter Shaub addressed concerns that Biden’s brother, Frank Biden, is a senior adviser to a Florida law firm and has been highlighting his relationship to the president.

To introduce the segment, Tapper played a clip of a previous interview he had with the president in which Biden said neither his son, Hunter Biden, nor any member of his family would be involved “in any enterprise” that even gave the appearance of impropriety in terms of official White House policy.

Tapper then referenced a CNN report last week noting that, after Frank Biden joined the Boca Raton-based Berman Law Group as a non-lawyer senior adviser, the firm has often touted his ties to the president, “featuring Frank and his family connections prominently on their website, in ads and on social media.”

As Frank Biden traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to attend his brother’s inauguration, the law firm reportedly bought a two-page “advertorial” highlighting values both brothers share while pointing to a lawsuit the firm filed against sugar cane growers “against the backdrop of incoming President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s commitment to environmental and social justice(.)”

CNN went on to report that the Biden administration said last week its policy is to not allow businesses to give the impression they have support from the president, but officials would not comment directly on the law firm’s advertorial.

The firm also reportedly filed a pair of lawsuits ahead of the November elections seeking to hold China responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials with the firm said that Frank Biden was not involved in those suits.

“President Biden has set and maintained the highest ethical standards for himself, his administration, and those around him, and he has pledged an ‘absolute wall’ with any family member’s private business interests. Any implication to the contrary is flatly untrue and unsupported by the facts,” said Michael Gwin, a White House spokesperson, in a statement.

Nevertheless, Tapper asked Shaub directly: “Is there a problem at least with the appearance of a conflict of interest?”

“I think there is a problem here, and it’s an appearance problem, admittedly, but appearance matters in a period when we’re trying to rebuild after what was inarguably the most unethical presidency in our history,” the former government ethics chief said after an apparent reference to the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Shaub noted further that it is “not enough” for the White House to simply “tell us they have a mysterious process of some sort” to vet or dispel conflicts of interest.

Last week, the Biden administration told CNN the administration has put in place a vetting process that involves the White House Counsel’s Office as well as Biden family representatives “to address issues as they may arise any questions of potential conflicts of interest.”

“I would like them to tell us what that process is. And although it’s not required by the rules, we’re in a period when we’re rebuilding from ethical failures, so I would like to hear the president say that he has asked his brother to stop touting the connection to the White House,” Shaub continued without elaborating on any presumed Trump failures in terms of ethics.

“Now, he can’t control his brother, but he certainly can reassure us that he has asked him. He can share what the process they put in place is, and he can also ask that all of his political appointees will refrain from dealings with the law firm and defer to career government officials to handle any matters that arise,” Shaub continued. 

“I think that would go a long way to resolving the appearance concern,” he added, “and I hope they’ll do that because they haven’t done it yet.”

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Jon Dougherty

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