A code of ethics defines behaviors. Many professions have such codes. For physicians, for example, the code of medical ethics of the American Medical Association prescribes how they should interact with patients. For many, if not most, journalists, the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists dictates acceptable practices.
The executive branch of the American government also has a code of ethics and an office to oversee it. The United States Office of Government Ethics, whose tagline is “Preventing Conflict of Interest in the Executive Branch,” issues regulations titled “Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”
The OGE rules say any political appointee must sign an ethics pledge regarding conflict of interest. For example, the code says a former lobbyist turned political appointee cannot act on a topic or issue he or she handled for a private-sector client.
However, presidents, through executive orders, can allow conflict-of-interest waivers to be granted when, in the words of the Obama White House, “the literal application of the Pledge does not make sense or is not in the public interest.”
Those waivers are public documents. Says the OGE: “You may obtain actual copies of any waiver granted to a Government employee by an executive branch agency.”
Ethics codes prescribe behaviors. Waivers may undo limitations on some behaviors. Executive branch codes generally limit the participation of former lobbyists. Therefore, it’s in the public interest to know whether executive branch appointees remain faithful to ethics codes and whether waivers are granted for appropriate reasons. Right?
Enter the administration of President Donald and its war on transparency.
From The New York Times:
The Trump administration, in a significant escalation of its clash with the government’s top ethics watchdog, has moved to block an effort to disclose any ethics waivers granted to former lobbyists who now work in the White House or federal agencies.
Walter M. Shaub, head of the OGE, five weeks ago asked the Trump administration “for copies of any waivers it issued that may have granted appointees exemptions from ethics rules” by June 1. This, presumably, was requested to allow them to be inspected by the public for compliance.
Remember, ethics rules generally prevent appointees who were lobbyists from working in the executive branch on issues or topics they handled outside of government. If the public cannot inspect the waivers, then the public cannot determine whether such appointees are in fact waived from that restriction.
Polite people called the Trump administration’s refusal “unprecedented and extremely troubling” and “extraordinary” and a “[challenge] to the very authority of the director of the [OGE] and his ability to carry out the functions of the office.”
Less polite people call it what it is: Bullshit. President Donald and his administration is becoming mired ever deeper in the authoritarian position that they need no oversight from anyone. That’s outrageous and dangerous. The administration should provide OGE with copies of all waivers granted.