Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Los Angeles on Oct. 10.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Los Angeles on Oct. 10. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Biden Pledges to Create a Commission on Federal Ethics If Elected President

Amid the Ukraine scandal, Biden goes after Trump in his new ethics plan.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden released an ethics plan on Monday that would aim to prevent political influence in agencies, strengthen whistleblower protections and inspector general laws, and create an ethics commission.

Amid the impeachment inquiry that stemmed from President Trump reportedly asking the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden and his son, Biden released a plan to “restore ethics in government” if he is elected president.

“Trump has weaponized the executive branch against its core mission, including using the U.S. Justice Department to protect the president and his interests, over the American people and the rule of law,” the plan stated. “The next president must demonstrate with their actions—not empty words—that public servants serve all Americans, not themselves or narrow special interests.”

If elected president, Biden said he will issue an executive order to prevent the White House from improperly influencing Justice Department investigations or prosecutions. He would work with Congress to enact laws that give the department’s inspector general the authority to review allegations of partisan influence and report to Congress if and when allegations are substantiated. 

Across all agencies, the Democratic candidate said he would ensure that decisions on matters such as contracts or permits are based on merit, not politics. Also, he pledged to strengthen inspector general laws “to give [inspectors general] the full subpoena power and independence they need to investigate and publicize any official’s actual or attempted improper conduct.”

A Biden administration would also strengthen whistleblower laws, the candidate said, “so that any federal employee who learns of an improper attempt to influence a [Justice Department] investigation or prosecution knows how to report it and receives full protection against retaliation by anyone.” All reports would be brought directly to Congress. 

The limited protections for intelligence community whistleblowers have been in the spotlight following the Trump administration’s attempts to find the author of an anonymous complaint regarding the July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Finally, Biden would create a Commission on Federal Ethics to oversee federal anti-corruption and ethics laws because “existing law is a patchwork of subject-matter-specific mandates, overseen by agencies that often lack the authority to demand and receive compliance.” The commission would expand on the current authorities of the Federal Election Commission, Office of Government Ethics and Office of Special Counsel. 

It would be able to issue subpoenas, consolidate campaign related information, and refer matters to Justice and release a public report when it chooses to not take up a matter. There would be five commissioners, who would serve 10-year terms and would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, with no more than three from the same party. A bipartisan oversight board would oversee the commission, which would include 11 experts on ethics, campaign finance and open government

Other aspects of Biden’s ethics plan include: preventing conflicts of interest among executive branch and congressional members, reducing the influence of money in politics and introducing a constitutional amendment to fund elections publicly. 

“The plan looks to resolve many old and recently exposed ethics dilemmas that harm the integrity of our democracy,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. “His proposed solutions could prevent or expose backroom deals that aren't in the public's interest.” Amey said this was not an endorsement of the candidate. 

Biden’s plan was released the day before the fourth Democratic debate and right after Biden and his son spoke on ethical issues going forward. On Sunday, George Mesires, attorney for Hunter Biden, said Hunter will step down from his position on a Chinese private-equity firm and would not serve on any foreign boards if his father is elected. His participation on the board of a Ukranian natural gas company while his father was serving as vice president is at the heart of the current controversy.  

In an interview with ABC News over the weekend, Hunter said he “did nothing wrong at all” with his involvement in foreign businesses; however, his “mistake” was that he “gave a hook to some very unethical people to act in illegal ways to try to do some harm to my father.”

Also on Sunday, during a speech in Iowa, the former vice president said, “No one in my family will have an office in the White House, will sit in on meetings as if they are a Cabinet member, will, in fact, have any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or a foreign country.”