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Walter Shaub: How to Restore Government Ethics in the Trump Era

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Walter M. Shaub, Jr., writes in the NY Times:

Shortly after his inauguration, President George H. W. Bush counseled freshly minted White House appointees that, “It’s not really very complicated. It’s a question of knowing right from wrong, avoiding conflicts of interest, bending over backwards to see that there’s not even a perception of conflict of interest.” He paired this straightforward declaration with action, establishing unified standards of conduct for the executive branch and resolving his own conflicts of interest. These words and deeds set the tone for ethical governance.

Since the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act, our past presidents entered government with an appreciation for the importance of tone from the top. Though exempt from the conflict of interest statute, which bars other officials from working on matters affecting their financial interests, they all voluntarily divested conflicting holdings and put the proceeds in blind trusts or nonconflicting assets. They knew their exemption from the statute was not a reward for attaining high office but a pragmatic recognition that America needs its president engaged in urgent matters of state. By holding themselves to the same exacting standards as the rest of the executive branch, they sent a clear message to those serving under them.

This tradition came to an abrupt stop with President Trump. By continuing to hold onto his businesses and effectively advertising them through frequent visits to his properties, our leader creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency. As things stand, we can’t know whether policy aims or personal financial interests motivate his decisions as president. Whatever his intentions may be, the resulting uncertainty casts a pall of doubt over governmental decision-making.

This shift fundamentally changes the executive branch ethics program. I have been a student of that program since I first came to the Office of Government Ethics in 2001, appointed by Marilyn L. Glynn, then the office’s general counsel. Every past administration actively supported O.G.E.’s work and respected it for taking stands when necessary. That White House support provided the office with the leverage it needed to fulfill its mission.

I am not suggesting that it was always easy. Having served for much of my career on the front lines of the presidential nominee program, I regularly locked horns with nominees and White House lawyers in both the Bush and Obama administrations as we wrestled over our differing notions of how best to address ethical risks. Sometimes those deliberations were animated; occasionally they were heated. I am also sure that more than a few nominees felt bruised by the painful process of resolving their conflicts of interest. Even if we did not always agree, however, White House officials always understood that O.G.E.’s only goal — and, indeed, my only goal — was to protect the integrity of the government’s operations. The incidental beneficiaries of those efforts were the Bush and Obama administrations and the nominees we kept out of trouble. That’s why it is disheartening now to witness parts of the ethics program slipping away.

The Office of Government Ethics has been performing the same service it has always provided with respect to the current administration’s nominees. In fact, I have succeeded in moving President Trump’s nominees on average almost a week (six days to be exact) faster than I moved President Obama’s nominees during the last presidential transition, without compromising O.G.E.’s high standards. I am particularly proud of this accomplishment because this administration’s nominees generally hold far more complex financial interests than the last administration’s nominees, a circumstance that would normally be expected to slow O.G.E.’s work. Unfortunately, it has been harder to address other aspects of the lagging ethical culture in the current administration.

The cascading effects of the president’s departure from existing ethical norms have touched others in government. The tone from the top led one White House appointee to use her position to hawk the merchandise of the president’s daughter and another to endorse the president’s book. It led a cabinet official, whose recent wedding reportedly featured a chartered bus ride from the president’s hotel, to urge the public to see a movie he produced. The press secretary touts one of the president’s commercial enterprises as the “winter White House,” and the State Department has publicized it around the globe. A White House lawyer made the extraordinary assertion that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (‘OGE’) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.” Appearing to echo this view, the Office of Management and Budget challenged O.G.E.’s authority to collect routine ethics records. Even some presidential nominees have pushed back against ethics processes with uncommon intensity. . .

Continue reading.

And see also “Departing Ethics Chief: U.S. Is ‘Close to a Laughingstock’“, by Eric Lipton and Nicholas Fandos, which begins:

Actions by President Trump and his administration have created a historic ethics crisis, the departing head of the Office of Government Ethics said. He called for major changes in federal law to expand the power and reach of the oversight office and combat the threat.

Walter M. Shaub Jr., who is resigning as the federal government’s top ethics watchdog on Tuesday, said the Trump administration had flouted or directly challenged long-accepted norms in a way that threatened to undermine the United States’ ethical standards, which have been admired around the world.

“It’s hard for the United States to pursue international anticorruption and ethics initiatives when we’re not even keeping our own side of the street clean. It affects our credibility,” Mr. Shaub said in a two-hour interview this past weekend — a weekend Mr. Trump let the world know he was spending at a family-owned golf club that was being paid to host the U.S. Women’s Open tournament. “I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point.”

Mr. Shaub called for nearly a dozen legal changes to strengthen the federal ethics system: changes that, in many cases, he had not considered necessary before Mr. Trump’s election. Every other president since the 1970s, Republican or Democrat, worked closely with the ethics office, he said.

A White House official dismissed the criticism, saying on Sunday that Mr. Shaub was simply promoting himself and had failed to do his job properly.

“Mr. Schaub’s penchant for raising concerns on matters well outside his scope with the media before ever raising them with the White House — which happens to be his actual day job — is rather telling,” Lindsay E. Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement that misspelled Mr. Shaub’s name. “The truth is, Mr. Schaub is not interested in advising the executive branch on ethics. He’s interested in grandstanding and lobbying for more expansive powers in the office he holds.”

Mr. Trump’s repeated trips to his family’s business properties — he has visited one of them on at least 54 days since moving into the White House nearly six months ago, including nearly 40 stops at a family golf course — have caused discomfort for Mr. Shaub each time.

“It creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency,” Mr. Shaub said. “Misuse of position is really the heart of the ethics program, and the internationally accepted definition of corruption is abuse of entrusted power. It undermines the government ethics program by casting doubt on the integrity of government decision making.”

Mr. Shaub recommended giving the ethics office limited power to subpoena records, as well as authority to negotiate prohibitions on presidential conflicts of interest; mandating that presidential candidates release tax returns; and revising financial disclosure rules. But he acknowledged that some of these proposals would be difficult to pass in Congress.

There are signs that lawmakers are open to considering the ideas. Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he was preparing to meet with Mr. Shaub. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2017 at 10:48 am

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