MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, entered his role last spring, he acknowledged to federal ethics officials he had a problem. He had some stock holdings that could present a conflict of interest, and he sought a tax break to divest them. Short was denied that tax break, and he has not divested. Now NPR has discovered he holds up to 1.64 million worth of stocks in companies directly involved in or affected by the federal government's coronavirus response. NPR's Tim Mak broke this story. He joins me now.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.
KELLY: Walk me through what a person like Marc Short in a senior job - he's chief of staff to the vice president. What is he supposed to do when he enters office?
MAK: So employees in the executive branch are subject to conflict-of-interest laws. These laws require them to resolve conflicts of interest before participating in any decisions or even discussions affecting specific companies or industries in which they're personally invested. So violations can carry potential civil and criminal penalties. Short acknowledged he had possible conflicts of interest, but he never divested to address them.
KELLY: And what kind of stocks, what kind of holdings exactly are we talking about here?
MAK: So Short is the senior staffer to the vice president, who now chairs the coronavirus task force. Short has more than a hundred listings of individual stocks on his financial disclosure report. We zoomed in. We focused on companies directly involved or named in the federal government's pandemic response. And what we found is that Short had between half a million dollars to $1.6 million in pharmaceutical, medical and other companies that fit that bill. That's individual stocks in companies like Abbott Labs, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Roche. You might remember the last two companies. They got a shoutout from the president during a coronavirus task force briefing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank Roche - great company - for their incredible work. I'd also like to thank Thermo Fisher.
MAK: On at least two occasions, Short has mentioned companies he holds stock in. On March 20, for example, Short publicly hailed the work of Honeywell.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARC SHORT: We actually encouraged that - the partnership with private sector to meet many of these needs. As some of you know, Honeywell is already retrofitting one of their factories to produce more respirator masks.
MAK: He holds up to $100,000 worth of Honeywell stock. What we don't know is whether Short participated in any official decisions that could affect the companies or sectors in which he holds personal financial interest.
KELLY: What does Marc Short say about all this?
MAK: Well, a spokesperson for the vice president said that Short has followed all applicable ethics laws, has always acted appropriately and recused himself where necessary. And he said that Short was denied a tax break to divest in his stocks because some of his stocks are tied up in family trusts that are very complicated and difficult to divest from. But Scott Amey, a lawyer at the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, said law enforcement needs to probe Short's possible conflicts of interest.
SCOTT AMEY: Well, I think it should be investigated. We want people to ensure that they're answering to the American taxpayers and not for themselves and for their own personal wealth.
KELLY: So that is one watchdog group and what they are saying about this. What are they doing? What are oversight officials doing about this?
MAK: Well, I spoke to Congressman Gerry Connolly. He's a Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee focused on government oversight. He told NPR that the issue warrants an investigation. He said Short had a, quote, "obvious conflict of interest" and that his actions reflect, quote, this administration's "cavalier treatment of serious ethical boundaries." And watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said they were drafting a conflict of interest complaint to encourage the FBI to investigate.
KELLY: NPR's Tim Mak, thanks so much for your reporting.
MAK: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF RONE'S "NAKT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.