August 30, 2011
C-SPAN Coverage of Panel Discussion on "Making Whistleblowing Work" Now Online
The discussion, which took place on July 29, featured the Office of Special Counsel's Caroyln Lerner, Customs & Border Protection whistleblower Christian Sanchez, the Sunlight Foundation's Micah Sifry and Daniel Schuman, and POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury.
Posted by IEC Team Leader | Permalink
August 29, 2011
POGO Questions NRC Revolving Door
The Project on Government Oversight notes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Office of Inspector General found no violation of law when a former Commissioner went to work for a company that owned nuclear power plants shortly after leaving the NRC. This did not necessarily satisfy POGO:
As the OIG points out, current law (18 United States Code, section 207, to be precise) "is not intended to prevent private sector employment after an individual terminates Federal service." The memo continues: "Instead, it restricts an individual from engaging in representational activities before NRC after the individual has terminated Federal service."
But are there sufficient controls in place to ensure that NRC Commissioners are acting with the public's best interest in the waning days of their regulatory careers? That's certainly a question worth asking, especially in light of some of the recent criticism about the NRC's excessive coziness with the industry it's tasked with overseeing.
August 28, 2011
Hatch Act Loosening in King George, VA?
According to Government Executive:
Most federal employees living in King George County, Va., would be partially exempt from restrictions on political activity under a proposed rule from the Office of Personnel Management.
August 27, 2011
FAA Restricts "Revolving Door" For Inspectors
Under a new FAA rule published on Monday, certain aviation safety inspectors who work for the agency must wait two years before they can be offered a job from air carriers and other certificate holders. "The flying public can rest assured that our aviation safety inspectors will remain focused on protecting the flying public without any conflicts of interest," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The new rule aims to address concerns raised by Congress and the DOT Inspector General in 2008 about the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines. An analysis by the inspector general's office found that FAA staffers overseeing Southwest had developed an "overly close relationship" with the airline, the FAA said.
August 26, 2011
OMB Watch Praises NOAA's Scientific Integrity Program
OMB Watch has good things to say about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's efforts to maintain a high level of integrity in scientific research. represents some of the best efforts so far.
The agency's draft scientific integrity policy and procedural handbook, released to the public in June, are thoughtful and detailed. In addition, NOAA has been an exemplar of openness in developing its policy, most importantly by soliciting public comments on its draft policy.
Fundamentally, an effective scientific integrity policy must do two things: prevent political interference with science and protect the free flow of scientific information. NOAA's draft policy makes strong provisions for both.
Management Guru Advises Relationship With Ethics Officer
A Frank McDonough post on advice for senior federal managers includes this tip: "schedule semi-annual meetings with the ethics officer." He also notes that the increasing number of laws and regulatory prohibitions creates snares for the unwary, and stresses the importance of avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
August 25, 2011
NIH Revises Conflict of Interest Rules
An NIH press release explains the organization's new conflict of interest rules. A Government Executive story and some Wall Street Journal comments are available. The NIH Conflict of Interest page has links to related resourcess.
August 24, 2011
Questions About SEC Document Destruction
The Project for Government Oversight Blog is raising some questions about the propriety of the Securities and Exchange Commission's destruction of some records of preliminary investigations:
A Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) attorney has alleged that over the past 17 years, the SEC destroyed 18,000 documents from preliminary investigations into banks and financial institutions--a potential violation of a federal law requiring agencies to maintain their records [the Federal Records Act].
[Rolling Stone writer Matt] Taibbi linked this systematic document destruction to a larger problem with the SEC enforcement division, saying that “the SEC's top policemen almost always wind up jumping straight to jobs representing the banks they were supposed to regulate.”
This problem of the revolving door between the SEC and the industry it oversees is something that POGO highlighted with our SEC Revolving Door Database.
August 23, 2011
Contractor Contribution Reporting Proposal
Government Executive reports on the status of a proposal to require government contractors to report on their political donations.
August 22, 2011
Honest Services Fraud Fix Advances
CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) disagrees with the Wall Street Journal's criticism of a legislative proposal to remedy the effects of Skilling vs. United States on the honest services fraud statute, (18 U.S.C. § 1346):
The WSJ's concern about overcriminalization and prosecutorial abuse might have applied to prior versions of the honest services statute, but the current proposal borrows language from 18 U.S.C. 208, a well-established federal conflict-of-interest statute that already applies to the executive branch and, more importantly, has been upheld as constitutionally sound by the Supreme Court. Further, under the proposed statute no public officials may be prosecuted unless they knowingly conceal, cover up, or fail to disclose material information they are obliged to reveal by law or regulation. As crafted, this bill removes the risk that a public official will be convicted for unwitting conflicts of interest or mistakes.
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary approved the “The Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act” (S. 401) late in July.
SEC Officials Alleged to Have Retaliated Against Whistleblowers to Depart
The Project on Government Oversight reports on the departures of SEC officials claimed to have retaliated against whistleblowers.
August 21, 2011
Changes on White House Counsel Staff
A post at The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times contains the following news:
The latest [White House Counsel] hire is Leslie Kiernan, who started on Monday as a deputy counsel to the president. Kiernan was a longtime partner at Zuckerman Spaeder who focused on white-collar defense and congressional investigations, including representing Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) during most of a lengthy House ethics probe. In 2009, she did some outside work for Obama by interviewing Justice Sonia Sotomayor prior to her Supreme Court nomination. ...
Kiernan has spent most of her career in private practice, serving at one point on Zuckerman's executive committee, but she also served on the staff of what was then the House Banking Committee. Her focus is expected to be on ethics compliance and the vetting of presidential appointees, but her portfolio will be broad, including judicial nominations and strategic advice.
August 20, 2011
VA OIG Alleges Improper Commute PayThe Center for Public Integrity reports on a Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report concerning high ranking officials who were reimbursed for commuting by plane:
This travel fraud happened because administrators at the highest levels of the VA allowed it to. In all three cases, the VA's frequent flyers chose to live far from Washington, even though their "duty station," the office they were supposed to report to, or much of the work they were responsible for, was in Washington, D.C. To be reimbursed for their airfare, hotels, and other expenses, they had to qualify for "official travel status." That means that every time they flew to D.C., their supervisors had to approve the trip.
That's apparently not very hard to secure. "Theoretically, someone has to sign off on [official travel requests]," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. "But what that person requires, and what that agency requires, is pretty loose."
Most federal travel is largely governed by the "honor code," according to Light. "Some travelers either don't have a sense of what's required or aren't required to file anything."
Gift/Travel Reimbursement Reporting Changes
OGE Legal Advisory LA-11-05 describes a change in the rules on gifts and travel reimbursement reporting thresholds.
August 19, 2011
Big Shots Who Are Humble Impress China
Thanks to an alert IEC member for alerting us to a NY Times article that shows how normal U.S. standards of behavior by public officials can make a big impression on those in other countries:
A photograph taken last Friday of Gary F. Locke, the new United States ambassador to China, buying coffee with his 6-year-old daughter and carrying a black backpack at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport has gone viral on the Chinese Internet. The seemingly banal scene has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft and bribery and lavish expense accounts. …
Mr. Locke and his family were waiting to fly to Beijing when a Chinese-American businessman shot the photograph and posted it on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site. It has been reposted over 40,000 times and has generated thousands of comments. State news organizations have weighed in with favorable articles about Mr. Locke, a former governor of Washington State and President Obama’s first Commerce secretary, who on Tuesday presented his credentials to President Hu Jintao of China to start his posting. …
“To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,” Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote in an article Wednesday.
The danger in focusing so intently on how we can improve our system has a downside, in that it can sometimes cause us to overlook the blessings that we already have.
August 18, 2011
OSC: Dept. of Energy Mistreated Whistleblower
An Office of Special Counsel press release alleges that the Department of Energy violated a whistleblower's rights by suspending him for 13 months. Here's an excerpt:
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu has agreed to change his agency’s internal policies and regulations in response to an Office of Special Counsel investigative report finding DOE committed prohibited personnel practices against Stephen Patrick, a nuclear materials courier and a federal agent at DOE’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility. Mr. Patrick was twice suspended when his managers revoked his certification to work with nuclear materials under the Department’s Human Reliability Program (HRP). ...
On August 2, 2011, DOE informed OSC that while it disagreed with OSC’s conclusion that it had violated Mr. Patrick’s due process rights, it was rescinding its policy of mandatory indefinite suspensions when an HRP certification is revoked. Instead, DOE agents like Mr. Patrick will be placed on administrative leave pending the completion of their internal appeals. Furthermore, a DOE working group is drafting regulatory changes to expedite the internal appeals process to avoid lengthy delays, like the 13 months that passed between the revocation decision in Mr. Patrick’s case and the resolution of his appeal.
Reminder: No September Meeting
This is a reminder that because of the 18th National Government Ethics Conference, which will be held in Orlando, FL from September 13th through September 15th, the Interagency Ethics Council will not be meeting in September. Our next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, October 6th. We hope to see you in Orlando.
Posted by PJC | Permalink
August 17, 2011
Defense Think Tank Conflict Allegations Bring Scrutiny
Wired magazine has a report on an investigation into alleged conflicts of interest at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). An excerpt:
“With [the previous DARPA director], there wasn’t a little line. There was a valley. You either sell your stock [in your old firm], or there’s the door,” one former Darpa program manager says. “With [the current DARPA director], things were very different.”
And not without some justification. Tether’s bright ethical guidelines had unintended consequences. If a company allowed an employee to take a sabbatical to join Darpa, the firm was essentially blocking itself from millions of dollars in agency research projects.
Under Dugan, program managers with potential ethical conflicts could designate someone else at Darpa — usually someone in a more senior position — to make decisions about their former company or university. In a speech last year, Darpa deputy director Ken Gabriel called the new conflict of interest rules “more realistic.”
One of the things that makes Darpa’s deals with RedXDefense so unusual is that those decisions weren’t passed to a more senior defense official, who would, in theory, be immune to any influence from Dugan. The decisions were left to a subordinate, who might feel all kinds of pressure to do right by the boss, and by the company run by her dad.
August 16, 2011
Crowd Sourcing as Whistleblower Supplement
As public portals for information sharing improve, fraud and waste scandals that were traditionally broken by whistleblowers inside government will increasingly be sussed out of aggregated data from frustrated citizens on the receiving end of federal work, a transparency advocate predicted Friday.
The website Seeclickfix.com, for instance, which has been adopted by about 500 cities, allows local governments to aggregate citizen complaints about, say, unfixed potholes to spot a problem in the streets department without an insider ever stepping up, said Micah Sifry, an open government blogger and author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, which was published in March by Counterpoint.
August 15, 2011
POGO Explanation of RSS Feeds
Like many sophisticated websites, the Project for Government Ethics uses RSS feeds extensively as a convenience for readers. Their excellent explanation of RSS feeds may be useful for those still trying to get up to speed on this valuable tool.
August 14, 2011
GAO Greenlights CFTC Whistleblower Incentive Fund
GAO has ruled in favor of a Commodity Futures Trading Commission plan to use its Customer Protection Fund to pay incentives to whistleblowers:
B-321788, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission--Availability of the Customer Protection Fund, August 8, 2011.
August 13, 2011
Can Pledges Prevent Revolving Door?
Time magazine essayist Michael Crowley wonders whether pledges to avoid revolving door issues could be worthwhile. The pessimistic conclusion:
Maybe a dose of shame can deter some of the opportunists. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. After all, the worst offenders in the influence-peddling racket seem to lack a conscience in the first place.
August 12, 2011
Export Import Attorney Vacancy (GS 13-14)
Export Import Bank, Office of General Counsel has a vacancy for an administrative law attorney. Please see attached. Download ExIm. USA Job Annoucement closed Sep. 9, 2011. See http://jobview.usajobs.gov/GetJob.aspx?JobID=101621634&JobTitle=Attorney+Advisor-GS-905-14&where=washington+dc+&brd=3876&vw=b&FedEmp=N&FedPub=Y&x=0&y=0&pg=1&rad=20&rad_units=miles&re=0&jbf574=EB00&AVSDM=2011-08-11+21%3a03%3a00
Advisory Committee Issues at FDA
Food and Drug Administration advisory committee policies have come under criticism:
“The facts at this time do not support the public statements that there are not qualified people to serve on these panel,” POGO investigator Paul Thacker said in an interview. “All agencies are under pressure to loosen regulations to make industry happy. This isn’t acceptable.”
The FDA’s website lists 49 different advisory committees or panels that it uses “to obtain independent expert advice on scientific, technical and policy matters.”
August 11, 2011
Letters of Recommendation Tip
The ever-generous Mark Stone shared a short explanation of writing letters of recommendation, based on 5 CFR 2635.702(b), worthy of publication in an organization's newsletter:
We routinely answer questions concerning the legality of government employees writing letters of recommendation. Government ethics rules do not prohibit government employees from writing letters of recommendation. However, there are conditions that must be met if a government employee would like to use official stationery and his or her official title in the signature block of a letter of recommendation. In order for a government employee to write a letter of recommendation and to use his or her official title and official stationery, all of the following three conditions must be met. First, the letter has been requested by the individual, OR by a company or organization that is considering the individual for some type of position or benefit. Second, the government employee has personal knowledge of the ability or character of the individual. Third, the government employee has dealt with the individual in the course of Federal employment, OR the government employee is recommending the individual for Federal employment. If you have any questions on this subject, please contact Mr. Smith at 555-1234.
Contact Mr. Stone to be added to his e-mail mailing list (address modified to reduce spam):
Mark --DOT-- Stone --AT-- wpafb -- DOT af --DOT-- mil
August 10, 2011
Senior Official Resignation Follows USPS IG Report
Federal Times has a lengthy story about the resignation of a member of the Postal Service Board of Governors after an IG report alleged ethical abuses. Here is an excerpt:
The IG report found that Kessler pressed other postal executives to back off a plan to purchase property that the Postal Service was leasing for a post office and vehicle maintenance facility in Sarasota, Fla. The agency had been leasing the property since 1965 and had an option to buy it at any time at a highly favorable price, the IG report said.
In a May 2 statement to Inspector General David Williams, Kessler's attorney said Kessler denied those charges. Kessler received many inquiries from members of the public and forwarded their concerns to the appropriate postal officials, the attorney said.
The statement said Kessler's involvement in the matter was sporadic and limited to a handful of phone calls with Band and emails to arrange those phone calls. Kessler forwarded emails from Band to postal officials and sent follow-up emails, his attorney said.
"There is no indication that Mr. Kessler improperly influenced or even attempted to improperly influence the Postal Service on this matter, nor did he have any reason to do so," the statement said. "Mr. Kessler had no personal, professional or financial interest in the outcome of the dispute."
Federal Times obtained a copy of the IG report through a FOIA request.
August 09, 2011
Resources Available to Ethics Officials Concerning Special Government Employees
We usually prefer to avoid reposting of information distributed via the OGE mailing list, but the note below on Special Government Employees seems so useful it is worth an exception:
OGE issued an Advisory Opinion in 2000 that provides a summary of the ethical requirements applicable to Special Government Employees. For a quick reference on the financial disclosure reporting requirements for SGEs go to DAEOgram (03-021). If you receive question on post-employment restrictions, read DAEOgram (07-002) which clarifies the “cooling off” restrictions and conditions under which an agency need not count a day of service solely on the basis of certain activities by SGEs.
To increase awareness of applicable ethics standards and principles you may want to send your SGES an online training module developed by OGE entitled, "Ethics Training for Special Government Employees." The course is an interactive web-based training module designed to be completed in about one hour and is intended for use by Special Government Employees (SGEs). It contains a summary of the ethics laws and rules that apply to SGEs, and may be appropriate as part of either your initial or annual ethics training program.
August 08, 2011
Would you like to be more involved with the Interagency Ethics Council? To raise your profile in the ethics community, possibly to enhance your possibility of career advancement?
Check out or memo describing volunteer opportunities:
Know something useful that could be done, but don't see it on this list? Let us know.
Minor edit Aug. 9, 2011.
August 05, 2011
VA Official Resigns
The report said that Jefferson and his deputy, John McWilliam, “abused their authority” by “coercing” VETS employees into awarding contracts to management consultant Stewart Liff, a former colleague of Jefferson’s.
Liff, a human resources and management consultant who was paid as much as $275 an hour, received approximately $700,000 over a 16-month period for services that could have been secured at a much lower cost through open competition, according to the report. The services included advice on the proper color scheme for offices. ...
Jefferson told investigators that he did not receive any training in federal government contracting or procurement. He said he told his deputies “to move quickly, and also legally, ethically and properly” in hiring Liff.
August 04, 2011
Scott Bloch Sentence Reversed
Talking Points Memo reports that the District Court rescinded Scott Bloch's one month prison term. According to District Court Judge Lamberth:
That said, the Court finds it surprising that none of the attorneys in this case--neither those for the government, nor those for defendant--questioned such precedent upon reading the statute. This is, at bottom, a situation in which lawyering has fallen short. Again, however, the relevant question is what defendant believed when he pled guilty, however inexplicable that belief.
August 03, 2011
Air Force Office of General Counsel ethics attorney vacancy (GS 13/15)
The Air Force Office of General Counsel has an opening for an ethics attorney, GS-13 to GS-15, in its Ethics Office (located in the Pentagon) and is looking to fill it as soon as possible. Practice will involve advising and developing policy on the whole range of ethics issues, with particular focus on managing the confidential financial disclosure program and providing post-government employment advice. Interested personnel should please forward their resumes to Safgca.firstname.lastname@example.org or call (703) 697-7430 with any questions.
August 02, 2011
NIH Limits Conflict of Interest Exposure Initiative
Nature magazine has a story about the non-implementation of a proposed NIH conflict of interest database. Here's an excerpt:
[T]he director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) may have spoken too soon when he described a new rule, proposed last year, that would require universities and medical schools to publicly disclose online any financial arrangements that they believe could unduly influence the work of their NIH-funded researchers.
Nature has learned that a cornerstone of that transparency drive — a series of publicly accessible websites detailing such financial conflicts — has now been dropped. "They have pulled the rug out from under this," says Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, a consumer-protection organization based in Washington DC. "It greatly diminishes the amount of vigilance that the public can exercise over financially conflicted research being funded by the NIH." It will also make it more difficult for "scholars to study the effects of conflicts of interest in universities", adds Sheldon Krimsky, who studies science ethics at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts.
Correction: Aug. 4, 2011, Fixed typo in post name.
Posted by IEC Team Leader | Permalink
August 01, 2011
In Wake of Scandal, Florida County Expands Reach of Ethics Rules
An article in the Sun-Sentinel describes how voters and elected officials reacted to the ethical scandal that forced Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons to resign from his post amidst allegations of misuse of office. Because Koons was the fourth county commissioner to be ousted, voters approved countywide ethics reform, expanding the ethics code to all 38 cities, towns and villages in Palm Beach County. Koons was prosecuted for his crimes (including extortion) by the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, showing that the county and state are beginning to take these missteps much more seriously than in the past. Finally, the case brought the Government in the Sunshine Law to the forefront, causing local officials to request an exemption from the law's requirements.
Training Tip 14: Training About Technology
The increasing popularity of ethics-related IT products like automated financial disclosure software and CBT (computer based training) has required many DAEOs to conduct training about high tech products. Information technology training has its own unique challenges.
Effective training rarely happens by accident, and this is even more true of technical training. Left to their own devices, most technically inclined trainers will assume that all they need to do is hook their laptop up to a projector, and demonstrate for the audience how the product works. This almost never works as well as the trainer imagines it will.
It is usually difficult for audience members to follow the demonstration or remember how to do things once they are back at their own computers. Sometimes it’s hard for the audience to even see the cursor, or tell when which menu choice the instructor is selecting. In the trainer’s mind, the demo has been successful, but the impression in the mind of the average audience member is very different.
There is a place for demos, but it's usually a mistake to rely on them to carry most of your training effort. Consider supplementing them with:
- Paper handouts that illustrate and explain how to perform key functions. Screen captures can help. There’s no substitute for a “take-away” the audience can reference later. See Training Tip 7: Should You Have Handouts?
- A slide show presentation. Slide shows have a poor reputation because so many of them are weak, but a good slide show can be a much more effective teaching tool than the typical live demo. It can do a better job of providing a conceptual framework for what you are trying to do with the intranet. Through the use of screen captures, animation and “builds” (additions to a static slide), an audience can better see and understand the material.
- Periodic short, clear follow-up/refresher e-mails with simple explanations of how to perform the product's key functions.
If you do a live demo, make sure the audience can read the text on the websites or products you display. Stand in the back of the room and verify this. If the type is too small, take corrective action such as moving the projector back, enlarging the fonts in the browser, or lowering your screen resolution (for example, moving from 1600 x 1200 to 800 x 600 will mean less text will fit on the screen, but the text that does appear will be larger.
Finally, consider generational issues. A generation that has grown up with Web 2.0 tools like Facebook may be quicker to embrace online collaboration and other IT products. Many lawyers lack such experience. Your training and motivational efforts should take these differences into account.