What Trump Administration Corruption Lays Bare: Ineffectual Ethics Rules

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives for a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the FY19 budget on Capitol Hill

In an administration run by a president whose properties have scooped up millions in political and taxpayer money, the daily onslaught of ethics complaints and investigations into self-dealing by top Trump Cabinet officials should come as no surprise.

A full catalogue of Cabinet-level corruption would fill a book, from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s real estate dealings with an oil industry executive to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s lucrative short sale of shipping company stock. But one Trump team member surpasses all others in his flagrant disregard for federal conflict-of-interest rules: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who now faces no fewer than 16 federal and congressional investigations, with no end in sight.

What’s most stunning about Pruitt’s never-ending ethics saga is not the millions in taxpayer dollars he wasted on first-class, military and private travel to exotic locales, on ‘round the clock security details and on over-the-top office furnishings. The real shocker is that federal ethics officials, having amassed an extraordinary paper trail showing that Pruitt violated multiple rules that bar self-dealing, employee retaliation, unauthorized pay raises and more, have been essentially helpless to do anything about it.

And therein lies the root problem exposed by this administration’s utter disregard for ethics norms: Executive Branch ethics laws are alarmingly weak and out of date. For decades, ethics watchdogs have warned Congress that a patchwork of agencies and officers scattered throughout the government lack the resources and authority to really police federal ethics violations. But since past administrations have typically paid a bit more attention to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which oversees executive branch ethics programs, the holes in federal oversight have gone largely unnoticed.

But now that we have a president who, along with much of his cabinet, appears entirely impervious to the OGE’s guidelines and warnings, as well as to a torrent of unfavorable news coverage, the system’s shortfalls have become impossible to ignore. In theory, the Justice Department, the Office of White House Counsel, or Congress could fill in the gaps to help check this administration’s abuses. But none of Trump’s Hill allies or administration appointees has shown the slightest inclination to hold him to account.

“We don’t have an adequate institutional framework to enforce these laws,” says Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a longtime advocate of stronger executive branch ethics enforcement. 

The problem lies with the structure of the OGE, an essentially advisory body that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The agency lacks the authority to issue subpoenas, enforce rules, or even promulgate ethics regulations. That task is left to individual ethics officers and inspectors general at separate agencies around the government, who are chronically underfunded and understaffed. The OGE also doesn’t have the power to order an agency to terminate an employee based on conflicts of interest, or to force a federal official to divest his or her financial holdings.

The upshot is that Cabinet officials such as Zinke, Ross, and especially Pruitt have run roughshod over the conflict-of-interest rules. All three maintain that they have followed ethics regulations, and that the complaints lodged against them are exaggerated and politically motivated. Trump, himself the target of multiple lawsuits and ethics complaints, and more preoccupied with loyalty than with scandals that he dismisses as “fake news,” has by and large responded with a shrug.

Even Trump, however, may find it tough to ignore the mounting scandals indefinitely. Ross may have improperly used insider information to short sell his stock at Navigator Holdings, a company that did business with a Russian energy company, at a profit of $100,000 to $250,000. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has asked the Justice Department and the OGE to investigate. Importantly, CREW is also asking for probes into whether Ross falsely claimed to OGE that he had divested from Invesco, his former investment firm, before he actually got around to selling substantial amounts of Invesco stock, a potential criminal violation.

As for Pruitt, he faces multiple ethics probes by the EPA’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and the Office of Management and Budget. Things have gotten so bad that the Office of Government Ethics explicitly directed the EPA’s inspector general this month to investigate a raft of new reports involving Pruitt’s use of staff time to run errands for him, and the influence of his office to try to land a job for his wife.

Democrats have responded with long-overdue legislation to strengthen the Office of Government Ethics by giving the agency subpoena power, and the authority to conduct formal investigations. Authored in the Senate by Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, and in the House by Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, the bill would also spell out that OGE authority extends to White House personnel, an increasingly glaring gap in the existing rules

The Trump scandal drumbeat also gives Democrats a political opening. This year’s ethics furors are reminiscent of the string of scandals that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to jail, and that helped Democrats wrest control of Congress from Republicans in 2006, recalls Holman, of Public Citizen. Back then, a package of lobbying and ethics reforms known as the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act languished under GOP rule for months, only to sail through once Democrats took charge. A similar fate may await the Blumenthal-Raskin bill if Congress flips again, Holman predicts: “I see a lot of similarities this year with 2006.”

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