Feb. 9, 2017

A First: Presidential Transition Team May Have Used Nondisclosure Agreement to Conceal Congressional Staffers’ Work on Muslim Ban

Groups Call for Ethics Committee to Make Sure It’s the Last Time Staffers Are Silenced by a Transition Team Agreement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In what appears to be a first, congressional staff were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement before helping the Trump transition team on a controversial immigration executive order. Such nondisclosure agreements should not be used again, a coalition of citizens groups and academics said in a letter (PDF) today.

Congressional staff on the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee acknowledged in press accounts that they were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement when they provided their expertise and guidance to the Trump transition team in helping draft the president’s executive order curbing immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.

“While it may be appropriate for congressional staff to provide some assistance on the Presidential transition … and they have done so in varying capacities for past transitions of new Administrations as well, we are alarmed to discover that the staff assisting the Trump Transition Team were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding their work,” the letter says.

The nondisclosure agreement seems to have barred congressional staff from disclosing any of the transition team work – not only to the public, but also to members of Congress for whom they work. This might explain why, when Trump issued his immigration executive order, members of Congress were caught off guard. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) publicly declared that he was not consulted about the executive order – even though his own committee staff were involved in crafting it.

Guidance issued by the House Committee on Ethics lays out how members and staff of Congress may assist the transition of the new administration, but it does not address nondisclosure agreements.

The coalition urges the Ethics Committee to review its guidance and prohibit the use of nondisclosure agreements when members and staffers are doing work for the transition teams. Additionally, the coalition urges the committee to clarify that staffers’ primary responsibility is to their employing member and committee, and that their work on the transition is for the benefit of Congress, rather than the new administration.

The letter concludes: “The non-disclosure agreements of the Trump Transition Team should never have been extended to congressional staff to keep Members of Congress in the dark.”

Letter signers include: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, Democracy 21, Norman L. Eisen, Issue One, OpenTheGovernment.org, Norman J. Ornstein, Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation, James A. Thurber, Transparency International – USA and U.S. PIRG.

Read the letter (PDF).

###