The Biden administration is without a confirmed ethics czar
This is the first time in five years that the federal government's ethics agency has been without a confirmed director. Trump holdover Emory Rounds stepped down when his term expired earlier this month.
The federal agency responsible for enforcing ethics rules across government is without a confirmed leader for the first time in five years and President Biden has yet to appoint anyone to fill the role.
The lack of a confirmed director should not hinder the Office of Government Ethics' daily operations, but Biden would be smart to pick a new permanent leader soon to signal he is serious about ethics, former agency officials said.
Emory Rounds, a President Trump appointee whose term carried over into Biden’s tenure, stepped down July 12 when his term expired. Shelley Finlayson, chief of staff and program counsel at the ethics agency, will fill in on an acting basis.
The agency is responsible for overseeing the ethics plans at each executive branch department and collecting and approving disclosure documents from the federal officials who are required to submit them. It occasionally issues new ethics regulations to update policies and provides guidance and reminders to employees across government.
Under Rounds' leadership, the agency addressed new ethics questions such as those posed by social media and digital assets, updated regulations for the modern workforce, improved technology systems to make it easier to file and access disclosure reports, and started reviewing agency ethics programs more frequently. The Office of Government Ethics helped prevent "countless potential conflicts of interests" among presidential appointees, Rounds noted.
Rounds made some waves during his tenure over various nominations, a process in which the ethics agency is so heavily involved that it requires daily communications with the White House. In 2019, he issued a warning to the Trump administration that agencies could not unilaterally change their ethics rules without Office of Government Ethics approval and threatened to hold up any ethics agreement with officials who refused to comply with the office's requests.
Rounds was involved in an extended back-and-forth with former Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross after Rounds refused to certify Ross’ financial disclosure, stating it contained inaccuracies and failed to comply with the secretary's agreement to avoid conflicts of interest through divestiture. Rounds' office similarly refused to approve a disclosure from then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
“In the previous five years at OGE, I have had the distinct honor to lead and steward an organization that is almost wholly focused on preserving and strengthening the trust between the American people and their government,” Rounds said in a statement earlier this month announcing his departure. “My mission, like most helmsmen, was to keep a steady heading, take advice from the crew, and allow OGE’s team of experts to succeed. I trusted them implicitly, and they each and all exceeded my every expectation.”
Finlayson was the first in line to take over the role, meaning it would have required White House intervention to put someone else in the slot. Trump did just that when then-Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub stepped down in 2017, bypassing Finlayson to tap David Apol for the role. Apol remained acting director until Rounds' Senate confirmation in 2018, and is still the general counsel for the agency.
Does Having a Permanent Leader Matter?
Don Fox, general counsel at the ethics agency during the Obama administration, said Finlayson was a smart and capable leader. A second former senior Office of Government Ethics official said she was an “outstanding pick” to serve as acting director.
“She is highly talented and knows more than anyone they could pick as a permanent replacement,” the former official said. “OGE is in good hands with her and will do well in the interim.”
On a longer-term basis, however, the person warned that the White House should act quickly.
“Hopefully, President Biden is aware of the need to nominate someone promptly to send a message that he values the government ethics program,” the former official said. “Given how long the nomination process could take, he shouldn’t take for granted that the job will be his to fill if he waits.”
In the interim, Fox—himself a former acting Office of Government Ethics director—said there will be little disruption to the agency’s day-to-day operations. While the agency must at times have difficult conversations with White House personnel, Apol, while he served as acting director, did exactly that. He sent a letter cautioning Trump appointees to behave more ethically just 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 EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt were all 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.”
Fox said there was very little Finlayson would not be able to accomplish as acting director.
“There shouldn’t be any drama at OGE,” Fox said. “It’s not their style and it’s not the nature of the agency either. The agency operates best when there’s no drama.”
He added it would be interesting to see who Biden nominates, as it opens a possibility for the president to instill some of his own priorities at the agency. While Finlayson cannot officially serve as acting director for more than 210 days unless there is a nominee pending, she could effectively remain the head of the agency as its designated second-in-command.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.