Amey: Enough with the ‘one bad apple’ defense

Policies to curb violations have served as Band-Aids when the face of government is changing

Stories of high-level government appointees and elected officials getting mired in conflict-of-interest problems have abounded in the past year. Scandals featuring members of Congress such as Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and William Jefferson (D-La.) and political insiders such as lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former General Services Administration Chief of Staff David Safavian, sprang up just as Darleen Druyun, a former Defense Department official, was being released from prison, where she was sent for violating ethics laws. All of those examples have exposed how private-sector interests have captured public policy-making.

We can no longer afford to dismiss as insignificant the actual and perceived conflicts of interest that were once explained away with the “one bad apple” defense. Previous policies to curb violations have ranged from employee and contractor self-policing to creating the Defense Industry Initiative, which establishes ethics standards for defense contractors. But those methods serve only as Band-Aids at a time when the face of government is changing. People are ignoring personal ethics and organizational conflicts of interest. Government contractors and employees are neglecting inconsistent ethics rules.

The Project on Government Oversight has been concerned with conflicts of interest and ethics issues since 1981. POGO has found, beyond doubt, that the majority of government employees at all levels are dedicated to serving the public’s best interests. However, enough bad apples have given the public the impression that all the barrels are spoiled. Something clearly is wrong with the system, and one of the main problems is the revolving door.

Although the government is worried about financial conflicts of interest for most senior government officials, illegal influence peddling can be even more detrimental to our system of government. Unresolved conflicts of interest of any kind have two significant negative implications.

First, they inflame the public’s already high distrust of government and ultimately lead to a decline in civic participation. Second, most career civil servants do not use their government jobs as steppingstones to high-paying jobs with the government contractors they oversaw. Many civil servants find it demoralizing when political appointees, senior officials and others do.

POGO does not want to prevent former government employees from making an honest living. However, in our view, political appointees and Senior Executive Service members should not buddy up to government contractors who are affected by policies formed by those officials.

Senior officials should not be allowed to move directly from government service to jobs with contractors they regulated or oversaw. When a government executive benefits from a legal loophole by running through the revolving door, POGO worries that the executive is circumventing the intent of ethics rules. And we believe the public should know about it.

POGO’s report “The Politics of Contracting,” published in 2004, and the organization’s participation in the Revolving Door Working Group’s report, published in 2005, resulted in recommendations that, if implemented, could ease the public’s perception that the government steers contracts to large private companies and major campaign contributors. One such corrective action is public reporting of revolving-door activities.

Unfortunately, the repeal of reporting laws in 1996 blocked the public’s means of knowing how frequently the revolving door spins.

For the past two years, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has inserted language in the annual Defense Authorization bill to help illuminate the conflicts-of-interest and ethics issue. The legislation would require certain defense contractors to list the names of senior employees they hired directly from government service. The list would include the former employee’s name, government employer, past and current job titles, and the defense programs he or she managed for the government and will oversee for the contractor.

No one yet knows what will become of McCain’s proposal this year. We find it troubling that the language was stripped from the bill last year during House and Senate negotiations because the defense industry said the reporting requirement was unnecessary, impracticable and burdensome.

Admittedly, the legislation would place a few initial burdens on the defense industry until the systems were up and running. But those rules would be insignificant in relation to a company’s other contracting requirements. In fact, a more transparent system would benefit contractors because it would allow them to monitor the government officials they hire more effectively.

Promoting a more transparent conflicts-of-interest and ethics system is good for individual companies, the contracting industry, the government and the public. Contractors should have nothing to hide when it comes to working with the federal government.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes advised many years ago, “Men must turn square corners when they deal with the government.” Mandatory reporting and even the strictest laws will not prevent willful ethics violations. The trick is to find a balanced system that promotes government integrity while deterring and exposing public officials who are driven by personal or private gain.

Amey is general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct to achieve a more accountable federal government.

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