White House Asks Staffers to Give Up Board Memberships, Including in Synagogues

Directive, which cites potential conflicts of interest, is legitimate but reeks of hypocrisy, Obama administration's ethics czar says

The White House has instructed its staff to resign the boards of any organization they belong to - including religious ones - in order to refrain from conflicts of interest. 

The directive, which includes boards of houses of worship, such as synagogues, is a legitimate one, a senior government ethics expert told Haaretz, but added that, "it's absurd for this administration to go after these small things while ignoring much larger conflicts of interest potentially happening in the White House." 

Two weeks ago, a White House staffer who was a board member at the Orthodox synagogue Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. announced his resignation in an email to the other board members, citing a demand by "the ethics office at my current job" to "roll off any board positions." The staffer, Ari Schaffer, works in the White House communications department and used to be the social chair of the synagogue. 

A member of Kesher Israel told Haaretz that, at the same time, Trump's special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jason Greenblatt, who regularly prays at Kesher Israel, also told members of the synagogue that he could not engage in other activities at the synagogue in order to avoid possible ethics questions. "People are saying - we'd love to know him better, he looks like a great person and a loving father - but it seems like the White House is taking a very tough line on this issue," the synagogue member said. 

Elanit Jakabovics, the synagogue's president, said in reply to a query that she's grateful for Schaffer's contribution to the community and that the board members "understand this is a general White House policy and not a personal thing." She refused to discuss Greenblatt's activities and affiliation with the congregation other than to say that the synagogue was happy to have him and his family as attendees ever since they moved to Washington. 

Norm Eisen, a former ethics czar for the Obama administration and a member of Kesher Israel, told Haaretz that the White House directive is reasonable - but also, highly hypocritical.

"I did something similar when I was ethics czar - I asked everyone to resign from the boards of any national organizations they sat on," Eisen said, but added that he "didn't, however, include boards of local churches and synagogues - only places that are active on a national level. I don't think membership in a synagogue board poses the same threat for ethics violation as, say, membership in the board of the national Jewish Federations, or the Boy Scouts of America." 

Eisen, who was approached for comment after Haaretz verified the existence of the directive, added that "my main question is - why is the White House so restrictive when it comes to staffers serving on a synagogue board, but so weak when it comes to much larger ethics concerns, going all the way from the president himself and down to his senior advisers and members of his family?" 

Eisen is a co-chair of an organization called CREW, "Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington." In recent months, the organization - whose second co-chair, Richard Painter, served as the ethics czar in the George W. Bush administration - has raised a number of concerns regarding possible ethics violations by Trump and his senior staff. In almost all cases, Eisen told Haaretz, the White House chose to ignore the complaints. The organization has accused Trump of breaching the constitution's emoluments clause, because his buildings in the U.S. and abroad have taken rent, room rentals and other payments from representative of foreign governments. A court case on the matter is standing before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

Eisen also mentioned a television appearance by White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway in which she praised products made by the companies of Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter. In that case, the Office of Government Ethics intervened and warned Conway that her actions were in violation of ethics rules. According to a number of reports, Ivanka Trump herself also contacted Conway and asked her to refrain from repeating the endorsement. 

"That's strictly forbidden, and yet she was not punished for doing it," Eisen said. "There was some reaction from the White House, but it was inadequate and came only after a strong public backlash. So they're allowing her to get away with this kind of behavior, but not letting people sit on synagogue boards? It's absurd for this administration to go after these small things while ignoring much larger conflicts of interest potentially happening in the White House." 

Another member of the synagogue summed up the affair by telling Haaretz that this ethics policy was akin to "going to McDonalds on Passover but making sure your cheeseburger doesn't come in a bun."