House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop yesterday couldn’t rule out the possibility that the committee’s Republican staff have secretly worked with the Trump transition team to craft forthcoming executive orders.
"I don’t know what people have actually signed and what they haven’t," the Utah Republican said when asked by E&E News about any nondisclosure agreements his staffers may have entered into with the Trump team.
"But it doesn’t matter because the Ethics Committee has already come up with the standard," Bishop added. "We’re going to follow that standard."
Questions about Natural Resources staffers’ potential covert involvement with the transition first arose at a business meeting earlier yesterday (see related story).
"Are you aware of any employees of this committee who have entered into a nondisclosure agreement for any work performed for anyone other than the members of this committee?" Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) asked the chairman at one point in the hearing.
She noted that senior House Judiciary Committee staffers had reportedly aided the incoming administration on its controversial order curbing immigration without alerting Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) or GOP leadership.
But Bishop, a former high school history teacher, offered only a lawyerly response to Torres’ question.
"The Ethics Committee was consulted well in advance and has provided guidance related to staff assisting with the transition of the administrations," he said. "So any actions would comport with the Ethics Committee’s written guidance."
That didn’t satisfy Torres, who asked Bishop to clarify.
"I still have the same answer," he said. "The Ethics Committee was consulted, the Ethics Committee has the guidelines. We will follow those guidelines in every situation."
"Right," she said. "But you still did not answer my question as to whether anyone on staff from this committee has entered into a nondisclosure agreement with the new administration. It’s just a simple yes or no."
"Yes or no," Bishop replied. "You got the answer. We’re following the Ethics Committee’s guidelines. We will do it in every situation."
The chairman was referring to a memo issued last December that laid out three ways in which House employees could assist the incoming Trump administration: as part of their congressional duties, on paid detail, or while on vacation or unpaid leave.
But all of these scenarios require some direction from or the consent of the House member for whom the staffer works. It is unclear how that would be possible if lawmakers were unaware that staffers were aiding the transition due to the nondisclosure agreements that the Trump team reportedly required them to sign.
The Trump administration has hinted at using executive orders to undo national monuments that President Obama established using his authority under the Antiquities Act — an unprecedented move that could benefit from the knowledge Natural Resources staffers have of the century-old law.
The Natural Resources Committee’s Democrats were troubled by Bishop’s unwillingness to offer them a definitive answer on the work his staff may or may not have done for the Trump administration.
"That’s something we ought to know about, if our committee staff is moonlighting, doing work like that and then signing extraordinary gag orders, like the ones that Donald Trump is known to require of those who work for him," Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told E&E News. "It seems like a dual loyalty problem."
Huffman, the panel’s vice ranking member, added that there was a difference between coordinating with members of one’s party and potentially working behind their backs.
"It’s typical to do some vetting and have communications," he said. "But to actually enlist these staffers to do work for you and to bind them in a corporate-like nondisclosure agreement? That’s unusual and, many of us feel, dubious. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. The committee staff are in an independent branch of government."