Exposing Corruption and Preventing Abuse of Power

Interior Secretary’s Move to ‘Enhance’ Ethics Could Legitimize Bad Behavior

Consolidating the department’s ethics programs in the Office of the Solicitor will benefit leadership, not the public.
(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

This piece originally appeared on Government Executive

A productive response to a steady stream of “lapses in ethical behavior” at the top levels of a federal department would be to address the underlying conditions that allowed those lapses to occur. An unproductive response might look something like shuffling agency ethics personnel around so they all report to an office whose mission is to protect the agency from legal liability. Guess which approach the Interior Department is taking?

Last month, Interior announced that it would reassign all full time employees working on ethics issues to the Office of the Solicitor, which already contains the director of the Ethics Office and some of its staff. Consolidation isn’t necessarily a bad idea. The department is composed of nine technical bureaus and four offices and, until now, each has had their own ethics officers that report to the head of the bureau. A department press release announcing the change characterized the current system as “13 disparate ethics programs with varying staffing and operations standards.” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt claimed that consolidation would be a step toward “enhancing the independence of ethics officials and the ethics program.” But while consolidating the department’s ethics program into a single office may improve consistency, it is unlikely to increase the program’s independence and effectiveness.