Ethan Barton, DCNF
Federal ethics officials need more teeth in order to investigate and punish ethics violators, a nonprofit government watchdog group wrote Tuesday.
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) “lacks the authority to investigate complaints of ethics noncompliance and to issue binding recommendations for disciplinary action,” Project On Government Oversight policy counsel Liz Hempowicz wrote.
“Currently, investigations, determinations, and disciplinary actions … are primarily left to the employing agency in noncriminal cases,” she continued. “For there to be true accountability, ethics investigations and enforcement should be conducted by an entity other than the agencies involved in the alleged violations.”
In a recent example, OGE wrote that “there is strong reason to believe” White House special counselor Kellyanne Conway “has violated the standards of conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted.”
But OGE is barred from investigating and punishing Conway for using her position to promote Ivanka Trump’s clothing line last week.
“This means that when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says Conway ‘has been counseled… that’s all,’ that is the end of the matter,” Hempowicz wrote.
Additionally, OGE sent another letter Tuesday to Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Maryland Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman and ranking member, respectively, who requested the ethics watchdog investigate Conway.
OGE’s letter essentially said it’d investigate and discipline the senior counsel if it had the authority to do so.
“Unlike employing federal agencies, OGE cannot take disciplinary action against an executive branch employee other than an OGE employee,” agency director Walter M. Shaub Jr wrote. “Thus, OGE is limited with respect to the actions it can take.”
Hempowicz noted that the OGE director can instruct an employee to “cease” an “ongoing violation and offer recommendations on how to do so.”
“However, in the case of a one-time violation where the damage is already done, the director is essentially powerless to hold the employee accountable for the wrongdoing, which is where disciplinary actions such as suspension or demotion should come into the picture,” Hempowicz continued.
Project On Government Oversight President Danielle Brian also urged Chaffetz and Cummings Tuesday to expand OGE’s authority in response to the lawmakers’ request for ideas on how Congress can strengthen executive branch ethics.
“We believe that for OGE to be effective, Congress should expand the law to ensure OGE has clear, independent authority to investigate complaints and to issue binding corrective and disciplinary actions when there is an ethics violation,” Brian wrote.
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