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

Federal conflict-of-interest laws require officials like commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross (right) to divest holdings, but President Trump is not covered by those requirements.
Don Emmert
AFP/Getty Images
Federal conflict-of-interest laws require officials like commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross (right) to divest holdings, but President Trump is not covered by those requirements.

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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