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Holding the Government Accountable

Unmuzzle the Ethics Watchdog

The controversial confirmation process and related concerns about conflicts of interest have brought to light the essential role of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) in guarding the integrity of government. It’s also brought to light just how much that office lacks needed authority to be more effective. The Project On Government Oversight was recently asked to submit ideas and proposals on how Congress can better uphold and protect the independence and vital role of the OGE and to strengthen ethics in the executive branch.

OGE’s reviews of incoming nominees’ potential personal and financial conflicts of interest significantly aid the Senate’s oversight of the ethical conduct of appointees. Both this office and ethics compliance across the federal government could be further strengthened, however. One of the biggest shortfalls, we found, is that OGE lacks the authority to investigate complaints of ethics noncompliance and to issue binding recommendations for disciplinary action.

We believe that for OGE to be effective, Congress should expand the law to ensure OGE has clear, independent authority to investigate complaints and to issue binding corrective and disciplinary actions when there is an ethics violation. Currently, the laws and regulations governing OGE are murky and hard to parse. Once you do however, they paint a puzzling picture.

OGE is tasked with providing “overall leadership and oversight of the executive branch ethics program.” However, that oversight is limited as the office lacks the necessary authority to investigate the complaints of ethics noncompliance it receives and to issue binding recommendations for disciplinary action. Currently, investigations, determinations, and disciplinary actions, including reprimand, suspension, demotion, or dismissal, are primarily left to the employing agency in noncriminal cases, as in the case of Kellyanne Conway’s potential violations during her February 9 appearance on Fox and Friends. This means that when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says Conway “has been counseled… that’s all,” that is the end of the matter.

For there to be true accountability, ethics investigations and enforcement should be conducted by an entity other than the agencies involved in the alleged violations. OGE is uniquely qualified to fill this role.

The Director of OGE may currently investigate and make findings and orders when he or she is prescribing recommendations of corrective action for ongoing conflicts of interest but not when recommending disciplinary action for ethics violations. In the case of an ongoing violation, this power is useful, as the Director can instruct the employee to cease the ongoing violation and offer recommendations on how to do so, such as putting one’s conflicting assets in a blind trust. However, in the case of a one-time violation where the damage is already done, the Director is essentially powerless to hold the employee accountable for the wrongdoing, which is where disciplinary actions such as suspension or demotion should come into the picture.

POGO’s other suggestions to Congress for improving the effectiveness of OGE were to insulate the office from political pressure by specifying that the President can only remove the Director for cause, to require that OGE publicly post final submissions of ethics paperwork, and that Congress work with civil society experts to identify and codify the gold standard of ethics pledges for incoming officials.

Our full letter can be found here.