Ethics: Rules vs. common sense?

Industry executives worry that heightened ethics sensitivity will stymie productive and necessary relations between government and industry

Take the ethics quiz No. 1

The Defense Department’s Standards of Conduct Office asks
employees to respond to a variety of interactive scenarios as part of an ethics training course. Here is one of them.

You are a structural engineer and your job includes making recommendations concerning the building standards your agency adopts. You are well respected in your field and have been asked to run for a board position with a professional association, National Architects for Industrial Legos (NAIL). The position is unpaid and the board meetings are held in the evenings. NAIL adopts and publishes model building standards for various building structures, soliciting input from the public and private sectors. Its standards are voluntary, but many states adopt them. You and your colleagues regularly attend NAIL’s public meetings, which provide information on the latest building technologies.

QUESTION: If elected, may you hold a board position with NAIL in your private capacity after-hours?

1. Yes, this is a voluntary position where the board meetings are held in the evenings when they would not interfere with your official duties.

2. Yes, you and your colleagues have been attending the public informational meetings for years. Your agency has also submitted comments in response to NAIL’s requests for comments on their proposed model standards. This is just another facet of those meetings and an opportunity to gain more insight into its model standards.

3. No, NAIL is adopting building standards, and it’s your job to make recommendations on your agency’s building standards for the future.

ANSWER: 3. This offer of an outside position, with the duties it entails, raises a conflict of interest that does not exist if you and your colleagues merely attend informational meetings on building standards, building techniques and other related topics. Nor does the conflict of interest exist if, on behalf of your agency, you submit comments to NAIL on proposed building standards.

Source: Defense Department

Take the ethics quiz No. 2

Many agencies ask employees to take online interactive ethics training courses. The question below appears in a training course from the Defense Department’s Standards of Conduct Office. The scenario involves a federal office holiday party and a contracting company, IT GEEKS.

The party committee decides to hold the event in the office on a Friday during working hours from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Everyone, including the office’s five IT GEEKS employees, are invited. The committee also decides that everyone who comes will be charged $12 for refreshments.

QUESTION: May the IT GEEKS attend the party and contribute to the
refreshments?


1. No. The ethics rules prohibit contractors and federal personnel from interacting socially.

2. Yes, because the contractors are part of a team, and they will pay for their share of the expenses. A big reason for the party is to promote the one-team concept for the entire office.

3. Yes, provided their supervisor authorizes them to attend and their time at the office party is not charged to the government under the contract. The refreshment charge is not considered a gift.

ANSWER: 3. Contractor employees may attend the office party if authorized by their employers, not a government employee. The time they spend at the office holiday party may not be charged to the government as part of the contract. DOD recommends that such questions be coordinated with the contracting officer.

Source: Defense Department

The Defense Department has a 136-page book about bad behavior, titled “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure,” which delivers its message with a sense of humor.

One entry’s title is “But, Judge, I didn’t get anything!”

According to the entry, “An offshore safety inspector found much of the government’s equipment to be in need of repairs to meet safety standards. He then referred the business to his brother-in-law’s repair shop. The rig operators smelled a rat and called the FBI. They discovered that, in return for each referral, the brother-in-law was treating the inspector to an evening with a lady of dubious morals. The case was brought to trial. In his defense, the inspector claimed that he had not received a ‘thing of value’ in return for the referral. The judge didn’t buy it — and neither did his wife.”

The encyclopedia, posted on DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office Web site, lists many instances of wrongdoing, ranging from bribery schemes to abusing a contractor’s time.

With few exceptions, federal rules governing ethical conduct are straightforward and based on common sense. Most federal employees abide by government ethics rules and their agencies’ codes of conduct. The ethical cases listed in DOD’s encyclopedia involve only a fraction of the government workforce, and there’s no evidence of an epidemic of misconduct by federal employees.

“People are minding their p’s and q’s a little better,” said Jan Witold Baran, a partner at law firm Wiley Rein.

Federal officials say the ethics track record of federal employees is good.

“Any issue you bring to two general counsel members will come back with six opinions.” Joe Bond, Veterans Affairs Department

“In my 26 years, I’ve never known anyone personally to have problems with ethics,” said Joe Bond, who leads the Veterans Affairs Department’s program executive office for resource management. “We know what our roles are. That is not to say there haven’t been questions or concerns.” However, he added, “I don’t think lunch or dinner will sway my decision-making.”

And officials who have left public service say the federal government is an ethical workplace.

“The vast majority of employees go above and beyond to do the right thing,” said Kim Nelson, former chief information officer at the Environmental Protection Agency who is now executive director of e-government at Microsoft.

However, rules for doing the right thing are not always straightforward. “Any issue you bring to two general counsel members will come back with six opinions,” Bond said.

“We wouldn’t allow them
to have a cup of coffee, but we could point them in the right direction for Starbucks.”

Larry Allen, Coalition for Government Procurement

Some ethics rules are inconsistent from department to department because of ethics officials’ differing interpretations, Nelson said.
President Bush spoke this month about the lack of consistency in the government’s ethics rules. After he signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, Bush said government needs more consistent ethical standards. He said he was concerned about the effect the legislation would have on federal hiring.

“I believe these increased restrictions would have a negative impact on recruitment and retention of federal employees,” Bush said, and he urged Congress to make the ethics rules more uniform and less confusing.

Federal ethics officials say ethics regulations are usually clear enough. But Eric Rishel, attorney and adviser for DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office, said specific cases often require legal interpretations of those regulations.

Because different interpretations are possible, some current and former federal officials say employees’ best resource when trying to toe the line is their agency’s ethics officer.

“The main point is, if you don’t know, ask questions instead of just assuming you’re right,” Bond said.

Sensitivity to ethics

Some industry groups find federal employees are concerned about any ethical violation and even wary of attending conferences with industry executives and government contractors. But that sensitivity varies. For example, employees at one department might be less concerned about conferences than those at another because of differing departmental policies.

Nelson said a regulatory agency, such as EPA, must interact differently with industry than a nonregulatory agency would. That difference, at times, “leaves people scratching their heads a little bit,” she said.

Industry executives and industry association officials say they sense a heightened awareness of ethics. “Ethics is a pendulum,” said Ken Allen, executive director of the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT/IAC). The pendulum is swinging toward greater concern, as inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office and the new Congress emphasize agency oversight, he said.

High-profile cases of misconduct, such as the one involving David Safavian, former procurement policy administrator who was convicted of corruption charges in 2006, caught employees’ attention. They want to avoid getting involved in scandal, Allen said, adding that exceptional cases, such as Safavian’s, are the ones oversight officials use to set the rules for everyone else.

The change in attitudes among government employees since the Safavian case is noticeable, industry representatives say. If there’s a hint of controversy about attending an event, federal employees simply opt out.

ACT/IAC hosts the annual Executive Leadership Conference. In 2006, about 900 people attended, according to the organization’s Web site. Many agencies gave employees permission to attend the event.

However, the Homeland Security Department wouldn’t allow attendance and kept a number of people away from the conference.

“The question is, ‘Do you want it [your misstep] to show up on the front page of the newspaper?’ ’’ Nelson said.

Allen said heightened ethical concerns have strained the partnership between industry and government, whom, he added, should be working together and not at cross-purposes. Under clear ethics rules, industry and government can share their information, collaborate on important projects and find better ways of doing business, he said. However, not all ethics rules are black and white. “There are a lot of gray areas,” he said.

Don’t take too much

Industry groups working with government agencies say they look over their shoulders more often now than they did in the past because even the appearance of impropriety can have serious
consequences.

When industry groups invite federal officials to speak, for example, they often give the official a thank-you gift. Speakers often will open the gift on stage. Some feds with a sense of humor explain their action by saying they want to make sure the gift costs less than the allowed dollar threshold.

Meanwhile, some agencies confiscate all gifts. “When I was with the Air Force, everything we got from speaking or from a vendor had to be turned into the ethics office,” Bond said.

Ethics rules can leave everyone a bit nervous. Industry executives often are as nervous as government officials.

“We wouldn’t allow them to have a cup of coffee, but we could point them in the right direction for Starbucks,” said Larry Allen, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, which hosts numerous breakfast meetings and conferences each year.

Allen said companies want to know the rules so they don’t get in trouble, as some have. One company new to government contracting hosted a government-only cocktail party. Experienced contractors later told the company’s executives about the do’s and don’ts of government ethics rules — and the consequences of violating them.
“Their award would have been three to five [years] in Leavenworth,” Allen said, referring to the high-security federal penitentiary in Kansas.

Maintaining proper relationships between contractors and agency officials is one of the challenges of government, which savvy feds learn to master — for the most part.

“The only area that is fuzzy is when you know someone personally outside the office,” Bond said. “Even if you have nothing to do with them professionally but they work for a contractor, it can introduce difficulties.”

When Nelson worked at EPA, she was once in a similar predicament.
A woman who was with a senior citizens’ group worked part-time in the agency’s small Office of Environmental Information. The woman quickly became friends with the 15 other federal employees working there. The holiday season arrived, but under EPA’s ethics rules, the part-time worker was not allowed to attend the office party. The rules put Nelson in a difficult spot: Invite the part-time employee, or exclude her from the office party.

Nelson said she invited her.

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