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.
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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 recently charged with running the company 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.
Spicer said that Passantino will head a team of people 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.
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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. George Sorial, an executive vice president, will serve as the chief compliance counsel, the company said.
According to a six-page white paper released after the press conference, Burchfield's role of ethics adviser would be to give written approval for any deals or actions that could "potentially raise ethics or conflicts of interest issues."
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.
The white paper, produced by the Washington law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said a compliance officer will be tasked with ensuring the company was "operating at the highest levels of integrity and ... not taking any actions that actually exploit, or even could be perceived as exploiting, the office of the presidency."
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 also appeared on "The Celebrity Apprentice" and 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.
Phone messages left for Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten and spokeswoman Amanda Miller weren't immediately returned. Miller also didn't immediately respond to emailed questions including to whom Burchfield and Sorial will report and whether they can be fired by the company's top executives.
Day reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz and Jeff Horwitz in Washington contributed to this report.