Ethics Watchdog Has Big Impact On Federal Workers, But Not On Trump

Feb 26, 2017
Originally published on March 6, 2017 12:17 pm

On Monday, the Senate will vote on Wilbur Ross' nomination as the U.S. commerce secretary. As required by the Ethics in Government Act, the billionaire businessman has reached an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics to sell off most of his holdings.

That divestiture will once again underscore the impact of the tiny agency that actually has no power to enforce federal ethics laws. It simply provides guidance on how to comply with laws, and helps work out solutions, as it has with Ross.

But while OGE has been shaping the holdings of President Trump's appointees, it has so far had no real impact on Trump himself.

Trump correctly notes that federal conflict-of-interest laws technically do not apply to the president and vice president, although previous holders of those positions have voluntarily observed the rules.

Back in November, OGE Director Walter Shaub used Trump's favorite social media platform — Twitter — to tweet out some advice. In an effort to coax Trump to divest his business empire, his office offered a Trump-style tweetstorm, saying things like: "Brilliant! Divestiture is good for you, very good for America!" — even though Trump had never promised such a thing.

Government reform advocate Meredith McGehee said of the 75-employee agency: "I would describe it at this point as the mouse that roared."

That was its loudest public roar since 1978, when it was created to help keep Washington calm. Congress didn't want another national trauma like the Watergate scandal that had brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

In the aftermath of that ordeal, Congress created new rules for ethical behavior in government, and set up OGE to help facilitate compliance.

"Government officials didn't disclose their personal financial holdings and wealth until the ethics laws were created," said Washington ethics lawyer Jan Baran. Once OGE set up shop, it taught federal officials how to comply with the new laws. "These forms were being filled out and submitted and made public for the first time," he added.

In the mid-1980s, the disclosure requirement led to OGE's biggest controversy up until now. That's when President Ronald Reagan's attorney general Ed Meese failed to disclose a financial relationship with lawyers for a Pentagon contractor. The scandal led to Meese's resignation.

Since then, OGE's work has gone on quietly, but with a huge impact on the federal bureaucracy.

While it gets attention for working with 22 Cabinet-level nominees, its biggest job involves overseeing the collection of annual financial disclosures from 370,000 midlevel federal employees. Disclosure is mandatory for "anyone who touches money," mainly contracting officers, procurement officials and those who oversee federal spending.

OGE's goal is to ensure that federal workers don't have financial interests that could come before the public interest.

And that's the rub with President Trump.

While Trump has stepped back from management of his business empire,
he continues to profit from it. He correctly notes the conflict-of-interest law
doesn't actually apply to the Oval Office occupant.

But previous presidents complied voluntarily.

Shaub, in a rare speech last month, suggested that Trump is upsetting a delicate balance in Washington.

"Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?"

Trump's Commerce Department appointee, Ross, decided to make serving his country enough of a priority that it was worth the price: resigning his positions with 37 companies and selling off his holdings in about 80 companies.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Members of Congress will be returning to Washington tomorrow. And the Senate is scheduled to vote on Wilbur Ross's nomination as secretary of commerce. He's another billionaire. He promises to let go of most of his holdings after an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics to prevent conflicts of interest. As NPR's Peter Overby tells us, the OGE is a tiny agency that faces huge challenges in the new administration.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: First things first - the Office of Government Ethics does not enforce federal ethics laws. Instead, it helps government officials comply with them. It guides them in filling out forms and avoiding conflicts of interest, as it did with Commerce nominee Ross. Back in November, OGE's director, Walter Shaub, used President Trump's favorite social media to tweet some advice, coaxing Trump to divest his business empire. OGE didn't win that one. But as government-reform advocate Meredith McGehee said...

MEREDITH MCGEHEE: I would describe it at this point as the mouse that roared.

OVERBY: And roaring its loudest, in fact, since 1978, when it was created to help keep Washington calm. Congress didn't want another national trauma like the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: People have got to know whether or not their president's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.

OVERBY: Nixon made that declaration in 1973. He was gone the next year. And by the early 1980s, the Office of Government Ethics was a big deal.

JAN BARAN: Government officials didn't disclose their personal financial holdings and wealth until the ethics laws were created.

OVERBY: Washington ethics lawyer Jan Baran.

BARAN: These forms were being filled out and submitted and made public for the first time.

OVERBY: The disclosure requirement led to OGE's biggest controversy up until now. In the mid-'80s, President Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Ed Meese, failed to disclose a financial relationship with lawyers for a Pentagon contractor. It was a complicated story. But, ultimately, Meese resigned. For the most part, OGE has worked quietly. It's had a big impact on the federal bureaucracy. It creates things like this training video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today we're going to be talking about roles for supervisors in the confidential financial disclosure program.

OVERBY: This is a program that collects annual financial disclosures from 370,000 federal employees, mid-level workers who do contracting, award grants and oversee federal spending - anyone who touches money. OGE's goal is to ensure that federal workers don't have financial interests that could come before the public interest. And that's the rub with President Trump.

While he has stepped back from management of his business empire, he continues to profit from it. Trump notes that the conflict-of-interest law doesn't actually apply to the Oval Office occupant. That's true. But previous presidents complied voluntarily. Walter Shaub, the OGE director, in a rare speech last month suggested that Trump is upsetting a delicate balance.

WALTER SHAUB: Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?

OVERBY: Appointees such as Wilbur Ross, a billionaire like Trump. But to serve his country as commerce secretary, Ross agreed with OGE that he'll resign his positions with 37 companies and sell off his holdings in 80 companies. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.