U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), and U.S. Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, today announced a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report outlining how political appointees at multiple federal agencies have failed to fully comply with internal ethics programs. The legislators announced the report during the 14th annual Sunshine Week – a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparency in government.
“GAO found significant problems in the ethics program at the Department of the Interior,” Chairman Cummings said. “This, combined with the revelation in an Oversight Committee hearing yesterday that Acting Secretary Bernhardt may be deleting his calendars and holding secret meetings is troubling. I am also outraged at the systematic obstruction by the White House of the work of the nonpartisan GAO.”
“Strong ethics programs are necessary to ensure that we can trust our government. Americans have a right to know that public servants are acting in the people’s best interests and that their decisions are free from personal conflicts of interest,” said Ranking Member Peters. “Unfortunately, the GAO’s report makes clear that multiple agencies have failed to live up to this basic standard – including the White House which refused to cooperate with GAO’s investigation. This Administration has allowed serious ethical violations to go unchecked, which threatens the American people’s trust in their public officials.”
“For the past two years, the American people have watched the Trump Administration blatantly disregard the ethical norms that have guided previous administrations, regardless of party. Regrettably, today’s GAO report shows more of the same,” said Senator Carper. “It reveals that several federal agencies have failed to abide by basic ethical procedures, standards, and principles meant to ensure political appointees and federal employees are working in the best interest of the American people. What’s more, the White House refused to participate in GAO’s oversight investigation. Upholding basic ethical standards for our government should not be a partisan issue; it’s good, common sense policy that is necessary for a healthy democracy. Sunshine is said to be the best disinfectant. It’s why now, perhaps more than ever, at a time when Americans’ trust in the federal government is at a historic low, shedding some light and conducting critical oversight on the ethical lapses revealed in this report will begin the important and much needed process of restoring trust in our government and those who serve in it.”
In the wake of several high-profile ethics scandals across the executive branch, GAO was asked to review the Trump Administration’s compliance with ethics requirements for political appointees. GAO reviewed the ethics programs at the Department of Interior (Interior), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Small Business Administration (SBA), including data on political appointees. All three programs were found to have instances where agency ethics programs failed to meet appropriate standards, most significantly at Interior. GAO discovered that Interior and the SBA had not fully documented their procedures for ethics training and the ethics pledge, respectively, and were therefore not in full compliance with ethics requirements.
GAO had also planned to review the White House ethics program but was unable to do so due to a lack of cooperation from the White House, hindering Congressional oversight of that program. GAO determined that the White House ethics program has not been reviewed since 2003.
The full report is available here and below is a summary of the GAO’s key findings and recommendations:
- GAO was unable to evaluate the White House ethics program because the White House Counsel’s Office refused to cooperate. The White House has repeatedly obstructed investigations by GAO under the Trump Administration. On March 6, 2019, the Comptroller General testified in a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that GAO requested information from the White House Counsel’s Office for “five different audit engagements” since President Trump took office and did not receive information in any of them. The Comptroller General said “there hasn’t been any meaningful contributions” from the White House.
- There is no public, up-to-date information on political appointees. Although the White House maintains timely data on political appointees in the executive branch, that data is not publicly available. GAO found that the Office of Personnel Management “is limited in its ability to provide comprehensive data, in part because it does not regularly receive data from each agency that has political appointees, such as the [Executive Office of the President], which has approximately 225 political appointee positions based on the 2016 Plum Book.”
- GAO reported that Interior failed to provide any documentation of its ethics program policies or procedures, exhibited delays in processing financial disclosure forms, and mishandled ethics pledges and ethics waivers. GAO reported “In one case, an Interior appointee who was required to file both a new entrant and termination report did not do so.” GAO found that “vacancies and staff turnover had negative effects on Interior’s ethics program.”
- GAO found that “nine Interior appointees’ and one HHS appointee’s pledges were not timely signed.”
- “Three appointees – two from SBA and one from Interior – filed new entrant reports past their due dates,” according to GAO. “Late filing heightens the risk of appointees performing agency work while having conflicts of interest” GAO noted. SBA also did not adequately document when political appointees completed ethics training. At the start of GAO’s review, SBA did not have written procedures for providing initial ethics training, as required by regulation. SBA established these procedures during GAO’s review.
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