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Utahns overwhelmingly want Rep. Jason Chaffetz, as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to investigate President-elect Donald Trump's potential conflicts of interests — an endeavor Chaffetz has strongly resisted.

A new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics found 65 percent of registered voters surveyed in the state support such a probe, compared to just 31 percent opposed.

The poll comes out amidst ongoing friction between Chaffetz and a top federal ethics official critical about Trump's handling of his widespread business interests, including foreign ties to Russia.

Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), defended his remarks in a letter Monday, saying they were "in line" with his role as a government watchdog and intended only to persuade Trump to "make adjustments" to his business holdings before taking office.

He requested a public hearing to address concerns over his comments that prompted Chaffetz, R-Utah, to threaten Shaub with an investigation and possible subpoena last week. Chaffetz had asked for a private meeting with committee members and Shaub to take place Jan. 23.

"Allowing the public to attend our meeting — or, at the very least, to view it through live broadcast or the attendance of the news media — would ensure transparency and educate the public about how OGE guards the executive branch against conflicts of interest," Shaub appeals in his letter.

Chaffetz declined to comment on Shaub's response Tuesday. He also would not comment on the Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll, conducted Jan. 9-Monday among 605 respondents. It has an error margin of 3.98 percent.

The Utah Republican sent an initial letter to the official on Thursday, questioning instances of the ethics agency "blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance," according to a copy published by The New York Times. Chaffetz included in the message a series of tweets posted Nov. 30 from the official OGE account that appeared sarcastic; they celebrated Trump's divestiture when there was no such action.

Trump has instead chosen to turn over his company assets to his two sons and limit new foreign investments — a move Chaffetz applauded in an interview with Politico as the president-elect "going to great lengths to be as responsible as possible." The plan falls short of what Shaub and other ethics officials had urged.

Chaffetz has brushed off calls to investigate Trump's business dealings, saying in a Sunday appearance on ABC News' "This Week" that to do so would be a "fishing expedition" pushed for by Democrats. The Utah Republican said Trump "is exempt from most of these [ethics] laws" and has complied with the appropriate financial disclosures.

The congressman had said on ABC News that to investigate Trump without any evidence of "actual wrongdoing" is "not what we do in this committee" and has instead pursued Shaub, who he believes was "unethical" in his criticisms of the president-elect.

In his letter of defense, Shaub says his comments were "intended to educate the public about the shortcomings of the president-elect's current plan."

"In recent weeks, I have spoken publicly about my concerns about the president-elect's current plan to not divest — as well as to applaud some of his nominees' ethics agreements, such as Rex Tillerson's," Shaub continues.

The Office of Government Ethics, an independent, nonpartisan group, has advised the executive branch on ethics and potential conflicts of interest since 1978, serving both Democrats and Republicans. President Barack Obama appointed Shaub as director in January 2013 with a term set to expire in January 2018.

Shaub publicly criticized Trump's business plans during a Brookings Institution news conference last week.

"Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective," Shaub said. "The presidency is a full-time job, and he would've had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation."

He later added: "The media covered some messages I sent the president-elect through Twitter. While some people got what I was doing, I think some others may have missed the point. I was trying to use the vernacular of the president-elect's favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest."

Additionally, Shaub says in his letter, the Office of Government Ethics has received an "unprecedented volume" of calls, emails and letters from the public since the election. That shows, he says, that people are interested in how the office handles complaints about conflicts of interests and would be served by a public hearing.

"Although I am willing to attend a private meeting if you insist, I am hopeful that you will agree that a public meeting is preferable," Shaub writes, noting that he was told by Chaffetz's chief of staff that the congressman would "not be able to accommodate that request." Shaub asks him to reconsider.

Chaffetz previously told Politico that the ethics official had refused to meet with him to discuss the comments about Trump. If Shaub refused to participate in an interview with the oversight committee, Chaffetz said he'd subpoena him.

"Is he acting ethically when he sent out nine tweets praising Donald Trump saying that his plan was brilliant?" Chaffetz said Sunday. "How did he come to that conclusion? And how does he come to his current conclusions having never done an investigation and never looked at the paperwork to the point where he can actually come to a reasonable conclusion?"

Since the call to look into Shaub's remarks, the Utah Republican has been slammed by Democrats and ethics officials who condemn an investigation of OGE.

"Mr. Chaffetz should be investigating the president-elect's impending violation of the Constitution, not this poor government official who is just trying to do his job," Norm Eisen, former ethics chief for Obama, said on ABC News' "This Week."

But the congressman was backed by Reince Priebus, slated to be Trump's chief of staff, who said Sunday: "The head of government ethics ought to be careful because that person is becoming extremely political."

The tweets aren't the first time Chaffetz has taken issue with Shaub's actions. In 2015, Chaffetz disagreed with the Office of Government Ethics' dismissal of Democrat Hillary Clinton's failure to disclose speaking fees garnered by her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, because they were paid to the Clinton Foundation.

Chaffetz has doggedly vowed to keep at an investigation of Clinton for her use of a private email server and handling of classified information. He has argued that there's a big difference in launching a probe against a president in waiting and continuing one against a former public official.

There is one topic on which Chaffetz has asked for information about a Trump business interest. He has requested details on the lease of a hotel Trump owns in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the White House. The agreement with the government's General Services Administration seems to preclude any government official from owning that building. Trump, though, takes the oath of office Friday.

ctanner@sltrib.com Twitter: @CourtneyLTanner

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