Holding the Government Accountable

New Public Accountability on Ethics Agreements

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) established a new certification that tracks presidential appointees’ ethics compliance. The compliance certifications will be posted online. Both the new format and proactive disclosure should create greater accountability when it comes to appointees’ ethics commitments.

Dale Christopher, Deputy Director of OGE, issued an explanatory memo and the new compliance form to all Designated Agency Ethics Officials (DAEO) on May 11. The memo explains that all Senate approved presidential appointees will now be required to submit the new form to certify that they have complied with each aspect of their ethics agreement.

Presidential appointees sign specific ethics agreements that lay out actions the individual must take to limit any potential conflicts of interest or other ethical issues associated with their new position. The steps can include completing trainings, divesting from certain investments, resigning from boards and other positions, and recusing themselves from involvement in issues related to companies that would cause conflicts of interest. Appointees typically have 90 days to comply with the ethics requirements.

In the past DAEOs would provide OGE with documentation that each appointee was in compliance with the terms of their ethics agreements. But OGE noticed that the format and content of the compliance reporting from ethics officials varied between agencies. The new form should ensure that all major areas are clearly addressed by every appointee and will provide those reviewing the responses with better baseline data to then identify outliers and unusual responses.

Most of the questions on the certification require a yes or no answer (or NA if the issue isn’t a part of the requirements in the appointee’s ethics agreement). This approach makes it clear to appointees that compliance is an absolute: either the requirement has been met completely or it hasn’t. The certification form also drives home the seriousness of accurate answers by including a statement that false or misleading responses are illegal and punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.

Another significant step toward accountability is that the OGE has announced the completed certifications will be posted on their website for public review. Previously, people had to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain copies of ethics compliance documentation. By making access to the records easier, OGE is essentially ensuring greater use of the collected data by Congressional staff, reporters, researchers, nonprofits, and others.

This effort to better document and disclose ethics compliance fits with other OGE activities to improve the quality and accessibility of OGE’s data. The office recently issued a call for data from the administration on waivers and authorizations issued to appointees. OGE also reported to the Project On Government Oversight that it will soon begin electronically posting all records released through FOIA, rather than waiting for multiple requests. This echoes the “release to one, release to all” approach the Department of Justice requested public input on last December. POGO supports the approachbut notes that building in a modest delay before public posting could help ensure that FOIA remains a useful tool for investigative journalists.