Do ethics norms still matter in the workforce?

Government ethics experts worry that perceived ethical lapses at top of the administration are influencing everyday feds.

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Government ethics experts worry that perceived ethical lapses at top of the administration are influencing everyday feds.

Considering the concerns over conflicts of interest, nepotism, as well as the pushback he faced from the administration while director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub said he was concerned about the trickle-down effect on lower-level government employees from the top of the administration.

"A lot flows from the president's behavior," Shaub said.

"When a president has a disinterest in government ethics, not only does it undermine the public's faith in government, it undermines government officials' faith in government," Shaub said at a Jan. 23 event hosted at New York University's Washington, D.C., facility. "And that tempts them to misbehave because [they might think], 'If the president can do it, if my boss can do it, why would I be held to a higher level standard than my boss?'"

Shaub, now the senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said he is less concerned about an ethical slide in federal procurement decisions.

"In terms of individual procurement officials, I think I still have confidence that all the normal apparatuses in place for the career-level employees are so far holding with no indication of changing," he said.

Moreover, Shaub noted that the bid protest process acts as a check on corruption at the level of individual procurement decisions.

While the president and vice-president are not subject to ethical rules in the same way as other federal employees, the best way to influence federal employees positively, Shaub proposed, is to "get us back to the tradition where presidents voluntarily take as many steps as humanly possible to resolve conflicts of interest."

Shaub, who led the Office of Government Ethics under both the Bush and Obama administrations, said the difference between past administrations and the current one when it comes to supporting ethical norms is "night and day."

A key difference Shaub pointed to is that OGE's power has traditionally come from the White House, and the Trump administration has highlighted the lack of enforcement power the office has.

"At OGE, my immediate supervisor was the president," Shaub said. "I do think it would be helpful if the director of OGE, like others in government, like inspectors general and the head of the Office of Special Counsel ... could only be fired for cause, and Congress had to be given 30 days notice with a written explanation."

Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, emphasized that while some of these issues are particularly prominent under the Trump administration, the nation should consider their future impact rather than tying them to one administration.

"Our democracy is bigger than any one public official, and these are rules that are going to be with us long after this president is gone and the next president as well," he said. "The more we can think about what's in our country's long-term interests and divorce it from anger at what you might perceive as the particular excesses of this administration, I think, the better."

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