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Government Ethical Standards Are Toothless, Unenforced

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

“Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”

“Experience has shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

~Thomas Jefferson

Gimme.(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Public opinion polls show that politicians are the most despised people in America. If you believe Jefferson, corruption is in their DNA. In the course of documented US events, the frequency and severity of political scandals increases faster than the population. In 1944 and 1946, National Opinion Research Center Surveys indicated that the public believed politicians could not be honest. Now, we’re at a peak. Ignoring the scandal-ridden private sector, in 2011-2012, almost 20 federal agencies and about a dozen individual Congresspeople were involved in scandals.

Scandals are the meat and potatoes of the media and the bread and circuses of the people. Although many of the worst scandals involving criminal and unethical behavior have occurred in banking, the utilities, and the oil and coal industries, only government apologists claim their scandals can be avoided by “new ethical training programs.” This is a reflexive response arising from a history of federal laws, copied by the states, which require that the heads of all government agencies be responsible for the ethical standards of their members. Congress has authority for ethics oversight, but ethics enforcement is self-administered and has no punitive foundation.

Ethics in Homeland Security, the Military and Interior

On May 17, 2012, a House Homeland Security subcommittee heard testimony on incidents of misconduct and criminal behavior of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees who were engaging in illegal and unethical behavior.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, said in his opening statement at the hearing: “Since 2004, over 130 agents of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have been arrested, charged, or otherwise prosecuted on corruption charges. Allegations and convictions include alien and drug smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy,” he said. “Even though there are stacks of [federal] government manuals, training materials and yearly briefings about ethics, lapses continue.

In November 2012, The New York Times reported: “In the midst of a scandal that has ensnared Petraeus, one of the most prominent generals of his generation as well as the current NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has ordered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review ethics training programs for senior officers, Pentagon officials said on Thursday.”

The top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, lost his job when he criticized several top Obama administration officials. McChrystal also admitted that US forces kill innocent Afghans at military checkpoints. He said, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

In June 2010, Obama fired McChrystal for ethical misbehavior and, appointed Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, closing the circle on ethical generals.

The Army has never explained why, when it got rid of all of its horses, it kept the horses’ asses.

After the Sex for Oil scandal, a two-year investigation by the US Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General found that Minerals Management Service employees who were responsible for oversight of offshore drilling and other mining and drilling permits reportedly engaged in various forms of unethical or criminal conduct, including sex and drug use, with energy company employees.

Two years after being appointed Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar said, “What President Obama asked me to do when he brought me there was to reform the department and fix problems.” Wearing cowboy boots and a hat, Salazar introduced a new ethics code discouraging “even the appearance of impropriety.”

Continuing Ethics Problems in Nonprofits

Ethics scandals in prominent nonprofit organizations have resulted in changing federal legislation of the Internal Revenue Service. At issue are the reporting requirements for exempt nonprofits on Form 990 and the corruption that Form 990 indirectly allows in the administration of enormous tax-exempt assets.

As of 2006, 1.5 million nonprofits held $3 trillion in assets.

In 2004, the commissioner of internal revenue testified before the US Senate Finance Committee: “We at the IRS also have seen an apparent increase in the use of tax-exempt organizations as parties to abusive transactions. All these reflect potential issues of ethics, internal oversight, and conflicts of interest.”

“As a result,” said the commissioner, “the IRS is currently looking for greater transparency in revising Form 990 for tax-exempt organizations.”

Ethics in Other Branches of Government

The US has hundreds of laws and statutes dealing with ethics and more than 5,000 federal employees at more than 130 federal agencies charged with interpreting them.

The authority of Congress to discipline its members is found in the Constitution, which states, “Each House determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”

By 2004, the House had heard 150 cases of members accused of crimes. 12 of those members were convicted, but not expelled. Although the House is forgiving of its own failings, it has impeached 12 federal judges and two executives.

A New Era of Resolutions and Laws, Ethics and Conduct, Codes and Committees

During the 85th Congress in 1958, Congress for the first time adopted a general Code of Ethics for Government Service for officials and employees in the three branches of government. The standards in the ten-point code are still considered ethical guidance in the House and Senate, although they were adopted by Congressional resolution rather than law and are therefore not legally binding.

The history of the ten-item code of ethics is similar to the history of the ten items carved in stone and given to Moses to schlep down the mountain. Neither document is obeyed or taken seriously by any politician.

Until the 1960s, there were no permanent Congressional ethics committees and no codes of ethics specific to the separate branches of government.

In 1964, the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct was authorized to investigate allegations of improper conduct in the Senate. In 1967, the House established the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

The Judicial Conference of the United States on April 5, 1973, adopted a code of ethics for the federal bench. The new Code of Judicial Conduct for United States’ Judges was designed to apply to all judges on the federal level except Supreme Court Justices, whose compliance would be voluntary. The 670 judges of the federal judiciary would not be obligated by law to obey the new code, due to protection afforded by constitutional guarantees of salary and of life terms. But their compliance was expected.

The House Office of Congressional Ethics: A Eunuch of Ethics Enforcement

During the 109th Congress, several members were involved in controversies ranging from improper use of their offices to inappropriate sexual contact with participants in the House Page Program. In response to these well-documented and highly publicized incidents, one of the first actions of the 110th Congress was to pass changes to the US House of Representatives Code of Official Conduct and other Rules of the House. In follow-up to strengthening the rules governing the conduct of members, the Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement was charged with determining whether the House should establish an independent ethics entity to serve as part of a new ethics enforcement process.

On March 11, 2008, the House created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent House office to review and submit formal complaints of wrongdoing (without any conclusion on their validity) to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

The OCE board is required to act in secrecy on all matters and communications. To dismiss a case referred to it or to empanel an investigative subcommittee is still the responsibility of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, thus keeping authority for any investigation and proposed discipline of a member or staff under the control of current members of the House. So much for enforcement. Back to square one.

The Executive OGE: Enforcement – Another Pipe Dream

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) was created by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued Executive Order 12674 directing OGE to write “a single, comprehensive, and clear set of executive branch standards of conduct that shall be objective, reasonable, and (my emphasis) enforceable.”

OGE sets policy for the executive branch ethics program. The head of each agency has primary responsibility for the ethics program in that agency. Currently there are approximately 5,700 ethics officials working across 133 agencies.

OGE’s record is far from exemplary. A memo by a government watchdog group found that the General Services Administration’s (GSA) ethics program received high marks in a November 2010 study from the Office of Government Ethics. The OGE report was released one month after GSA threw the lavish Las Vegas conference that led to a series of Congressional hearings.

Nonpartisan watchdog Cause of Action said in a memo that “OGE recklessly disregarded clear warning signs of waste, fraud and abuse at GSA. Furthermore, any mismanagement or fraud within the OGE is subject to review only by OGE itself, as OGE lacks an inspector general.”

In the 34 years since the formation of OGE, none of the 5,700 employees working in the 133 executive agencies has found any wrongdoing to be significant enough to trigger enforcement of ethical standards. Similarly, Congressional oversight of the executive branch has ignored president/s who condone torture, assassination, imprisonment of whistleblowers they formerly encouraged, violate the Constitution at will and have been accused of war crimes by constitutional lawyers.

According to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley in an MSNBC interview about torture, “The president refuses to allow the investigation of war crimes. It is just as bad to prevent the investigation and prosecution of a war crime as its commission because you become part of it. There’s no question about a war crime here.”

“This is the most well-defined and publicly known crime I have seen in my lifetime,” said Turley. “There is no debate about it. There is no ambiguity. It is well known.”

“The president of the United States believes that he has the power to order people killed, assassinated, in total secrecy, without any due process, without transparency or oversight of any kind,” says Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney, political and legal blogger, and Guardian columnist. “I really do believe it’s literally the most radical power that a government and a president can seize, and yet the Obama administration has seized this power and exercised it aggressively with very little controversy.”


During the pre-election season – while Mitt Romney was claiming he was born in a log cabin he built with his own hands, Paul Ryan was swearing he was there when it happened, and Obama during the first debate was meditating on the feng shui orientations of the White House – DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Veterans Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the GSA, the military, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the CBP , the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts were all being investigated.

Ethics standards in government are either nonexistent or violated with impunity. In spite of the House majority’s unprecedented verbal declarations of hostility toward the president, there is absolutely no oversight of the executive branch’s ethical or constitutional violations. The Congress’ contribution to ethical violations and its acceptance of the end of ethics is a concomitant contribution to and acceptance of the end of democracy

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