Friday, December 02, 2016

OGE Scandal

It sometimes seems these days like the world has contracted some form of insanity. According to this ThinkProgress article, someone at the U.S. Office of Government Ethics was making mocking tweets, on the USOGE twitter account, about Donald Trump:

The Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for ensuring executive branch personnel don’t run afoul of conflict of interest laws, has been pressuring Trump to place his fortune in a blind trust, like virtually every president before him. But Trump has thus far refused — and in his Wednesday tweetstorm, he purposefully did not say he plans on actually divesting from his own company.

That omission was not lost on whomever manages the OGE’s official Twitter account. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, the OGE shot off a series of tweets mock-congratulating Trump for putting his conflicts of interest to rest by divesting from his company, which Trump very much did not do....

The tweets first appeared Wednesday morning, but were initially deleted before being re-posted shortly before 1:00pm, according to The Washington Post. There were nine similarly flippant tweets in all from the OGE, an uncharacteristic departure from its usual social media strategy of sharing such pressing updates as “OGE launches new Confidential Financial Disclosure Guide for OGE Form 450.”

The full tweets were (I've only been able to find seven, though):

.@realDonaldTrump OGE applauds the "total" divestiture decision. Bravo!
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonalTrump As we discussed with your counsel, divestiture is the way to resolve these conflicts.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump OGE is delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump this aligns with OGE opinion that POTUS should act as if 18 USC 208 applies. https://t.co/T6nNUPxFwp
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump this divestiture does what handing over control could never have done.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump - we told your counsel we'd sing your praises if you divested, we meant it.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

The USOGE later confirmed that the tweets, which struck people as bizarre, were authentic:

Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect's twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest. OGE applauds that goal, which is consistent with an opinion OGE issued in 1983. Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. We don't know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.

This statement, of course, doesn't clarify anything at all, and looks very much like a bad attempt to save face over someone's stupid decision.

It shouldn't have to be said, but unfortunately in this political environment apparently does, that such an action is obviously a serious violation of basic principles of government ethics. The USOGE exists to give guidelines to civil servants on conflicts of interest and to assist Congress and the President in reducing and eliminating conflicts of interest for appointees. It only has authority to advise, train, and provide information; it does not have authority to enforce the guidelines it gives nor to pressure anyone to follow them -- that is under the authority of other agencies. What is more, the President is not subject to normal conflict of interest statutes (which govern civil servants and political appointees), nor normal ethical guidelines (which emanate from the Office of the President itself and thus are not superior to it). As noted in the opinion the tweets reference, the President is not in any way bound by anything that the OGE's province covers, even though it is a good idea in general for the President to lead by example on these matters. The OGE thus does not have any authority at all in this matter except to advise. Likewise, it is not an agency which has the authority to investigate, and therefore to evaluate, the ethical situation of the Presidency; it is an advisory body that should be giving advice to Trump and to the White House and to Congress, and not mouthing off in public.

What is more, while a President-Elect will soon be President, he is not yet; he is still a private citizen, not the holder of a constitutional or statutory office. It is utterly inappropriate for the USOGE to discuss a private citizen's affairs in public in this way, without full authorization to do so. Not only that, but this kind of evaluation is entirely unprofessional, because the USGOE has not seen anything of Trump's actual plan, and it is utterly unprofessional to use an official medium of government communication to pronounce on a matter that has not undergone an appropriate and official process of evaluation. Nor is the tone of these tweets professionally appropriate to the situation. Nothing whatsoever about this behavior is in any way acceptable, especially in an agency serving such an essential function in the preserving the ethical integrity of the civil service itself.

The election of Trump was not a holiday from sanity. The obligations of citizens and civil servants are as they ever were. Honor is still honor, virtue is still virtue, moral law is still moral law. As they always have been, reason is reason and truth is truth. There is no excuse for such failures of good sense.

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