The resignation last week of the U.S. government’s top ethics official after he clashed with the Trump administration has renewed debate over whether to strengthen the little-known agency.
Walter Shaub called for tougher rules at the Office of Government Ethics as he announced his resignation after almost five years as its head.
“In working with the current administration, it has become clear that we need to strengthen the ethics program,” Shaub said.
Watchdog needs teeth
Many ethics experts agree. Although he pressured the White House to release ethics waivers it had issued to several political appointees, Shaub was repeatedly rebuffed in other efforts to ensure compliance with ethics rules, including a much-publicized campaign to get President Donald Trump to divest his assets.
His campaign drew praise from Democrats and ethics watchdogs, but some White House officials and their political allies warned him to be careful when criticizing the president. His departure is not likely to end the debate over the office’s future role.
“I think it’s a watchdog that has a lot of missing teeth,” said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group in Washington. “We need to figure out how to make it stronger.”
A product of the Watergate era
The Office of Government Ethics was one of several entities created in the aftermath of the 1970s Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and spurred efforts for clean government. The small agency was given a big mission: prevent corruption and conflicts of interest in the executive branch.
But its power was limited. While it was authorized to issue regulations on financial disclosure, conflicts of interest and other conduct, it couldn’t investigate and prosecute ethics violations. The power to investigate misconduct rests with the FBI and agency inspectors general; the Department of Justice prosecutes offenders.
Stuart Gilman, a former OGE official, said Congress discussed giving the agency investigative powers but decided against it in order to encourage government employees to be forthcoming.
“The question is, when you want people to come to the Office of Government Ethics and ask questions about ethics, will they be more or less likely to ask those question of a body that will also in turn investigate them,” Gilman said.
But the lack of investigative and enforcement powers had a downside.
“The OGE had such a reputation of being more concerned with whether or not the papers were filled out as opposed to whether or not the information was actually accurate,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One, a Washington advocacy group. “There were many instances you’d have liked the Office of Government Ethics to speak out more lively.”
Accusations of partisanship
Shaub did use his platform at times.
In late November, the OGE took to Twitter to encourage the president-elect to put his assets in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest.
“Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts is to divest. Good call!” read one of several tweets Shaub ordered.
The tweets were widely criticized. Even supporters found it off-putting.
But Shaub did not relent. After Trump announced that he was handing over his real estate business to his sons instead of putting it in a blind trust as the OGE had recommended, Shaub denounced the move as “not even half-way blind.”
The Office of Government Ethics has long had a reputation for low-key bipartisanship. It provides advice; it rarely takes a public position. Republicans felt Shaub had crossed a line and accused the Obama holdover of partisanship.
Ken Boehm, chairman of the conservative National Legal and Policy Center, said Shaub’s statements reinforced the perception that the OGE has it in for the Trump administration.
“The proper thing for him to do is to do nothing,” Boehm said.
Working for change
Shaub is leaving the agency to join the Campaign Legal Center, one of several ethics watchdogs pressing Congress to give the OGE greater powers.
“It’s imperative that we sustain a culture of high ethical standards in our government,” Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, said last week.
While a Campaign Legal Center spokesman says the group has not “come out with a definitive stance” on reforming the OGE, Issue One has produced a reform package.
Among the recommendations is a proposal to restrict the president’s ability to fire the OGE director without cause. Although no OGE director has been fired without cause, the proposal would “very much strengthen the director’s hand,” said McGehee at Issue One.
Another would give the agency the power to investigate allegations of ethics violations, while a third would empower the OGE director to subpoena witnesses, compel production of documents and issue civil penalties for violations by high-ranking officials.
“These are some of the standard enforcement powers you’d expect any office overlooking ethics to have,” McGehee said.
Liberals and conservatives
McGehee said the proposals grew out of discussions among liberal and conservative government watchdog groups such as Project on Government Oversight and Judicial Watch.
Amey, of the Project on Government Oversight, said his organization has pushed for some of the recommendations.
“OGE lacks authority to investigate complaints of ethics noncompliance and we believe that this authority should be granted to the agency,” Amey said.
Some of the reform initiatives date back to the early days of the agency. The proposal that the director of the agency can be terminated only for cause was first introduced by a Republican congressman in 1983, McGehee said.
“These problems should not be seen in any way, shape or form as anti-Trump or anti this administration,” McGehee said.
“The central problem is if you have something that’s perceived to be partisan, then you always have a credibility problem because then the folks in the majority call the shots,” Boehm said.
To avoid the problem, the agency needs leadership shared between a Democrat and a Republican, Boehm said.
Former OGE staffer Gilman said while he doesn’t object to any of the proposed reforms, he doesn’t see a pressing need for them. The agency enjoys some of the powers, such as the ability to order “corrective actions,” he said.
Instead, he said, the agency should be given the power to overturn recusals and waivers issued by the administration and to force high ranking government officials to take ethics training within 90 days of joining the government.