Federal agency heads have received a stern warning from the government’s chief ethics watchdog, advising them to go beyond what is merely legal to set an example for their employees.
David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, sent a letter to agency leaders Oct. 5 following a string of ethics complaints and investigations regarding the travel of members of President Trump’s Cabinet. Apol reminded agency heads their conduct “sets a powerful example for the employees in your organization,” and implored them to adopt a “should I do it?” rather than a “can I do it?” mentality.
He sent the letter less than one week after Health and Human Services Department Secretary Tom Price resigned following reports he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private, chartered flights. Other members of Trump’s team, such as Treasury Department Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin, Energy Department Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, are currently or were already under investigation for their travel practices.
“I am deeply concerned that the actions of some in government leadership have harmed perceptions about the importance of ethics and what conduct is, and is not, permissible,” Apol said. “I encourage you to consider taking action to re-double your commitment to ethics in government.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney released a memorandum last week instructing agency heads that all travel on government or chartered aircraft must receive approval from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
“Every penny we spend comes from the taxpayer,” Mulvaney said. “We thus owe it to the taxpayer to work as hard managing that money wisely as the taxpayer must do to earn it in the first place. Put another way, just because something is legal doesn't make it right.”
Apol provided a list of recommendations for agency leaders to institute, such as better communicating ethics priorities in speeches and memoranda. He advised the chiefs to familiarize themselves with their agency ethics programs, provide adequate resources to ethics offices, invite ethics officials to leadership meetings, “underscore the consequences” of violating ethics rules and to “promote a safe culture for reporting misconduct.” He specifically praised Defense Department Secretary James Mattis and Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue for setting the proper tone at the top through communications to employees and new ethics training programs.
The acting ethics director took over for Walter Shaub in July, after Shaub resigned in protest of what he viewed as the Trump administration’s unethical behavior. Trump bypassed the senior career official in line to serve as acting OGE director to select Apol. Shaub, now at the Campaign Legal Center, said the move would “put off” some OGE employees because Apol maintained a “loose view of ethics laws.”
Apol did not mince words, however, in his letter, which OGE released publicly this week.
“The citizens we serve deserve to have confidence in the integrity of their government," Apol wrote. “The public's trust is not guaranteed. We must earn that trust every day, because the loss of that trust is catastrophic.”