As the White House makes headlines for claiming not all government ethics rules apply to them, I thought I would share my own experiences with federal ethics offices. The punchline is that the rules can be a pain to follow, but are important to ensure people don’t take advantage of their position for personal gain and to help ensure public trust in the system. If you don’t want to follow the rules, don’t go into public service.
I have been through four sets of federal ethics reviews. As a senior staffer in the House of Representatives I provided copies of financial my records to House ethics officials who made them publicly available. When I worked on health care reform in the House in 2009 I needed to receive formal permission from House ethic officials to continue teaching at The George Washington University. As a vice president at the US Institute of Peace, a congressionally created and funded independent agency, I was subject to a financial and criminal background check, and again needed to receive special permission to continue teaching.
Last spring the Obama administration asked if I would be willing to talk to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about helping with strategic communications on several priority issues. After meeting with the FDA Commissioner and accepting the position a six week process began that included security clearance, more White House vetting, and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).
The security clearance paperwork required me to report everywhere I had lived for the past ten years, all of my employers during that time, all of my international travel during that time, and names of people they could contact about my character. The process also involved a credit check and criminal records check. I was able to start with enough of the background check complete to give the White House confidence I would not compromise the interests of the American people while the investigative process continued.
White House vetting included additional research that could be done online and over the phone. I had to confirm that I had not been a registered lobbyist in the past two years and that I had no real or apparent conflicts of interest. In addition, White House staff reviewed all of my publicly available statements to ensure I had not done anything that could embarrass the President or the American people – that meant reading all of my blog posts and articles, reviewing TV appearances, looking at my Twitter feed, and anything else anyone could reasonably find that I had done or said. Because my position was relatively senior, the vetting was pretty thorough. As a final precaution, I shut down seldom used social media accounts and resigned for the national non-profit board on which I sat. I also stopped teaching at GW, though that was more about scheduling than anything else.
Then there was OGE. My wife and I had to report all of our income and employers over the past two years, all of our board involvements, and all of our personal financial information. OGE required I list every stock in our retirement and investment accounts. Once I filed all of this information, OGE came back with a list of everything we would have to sell. There is a provision that allows people in my position to put off a capital gains hit from selling stock to enter public service as long as proceeds from the stock sale are used to buy mutual funds over whose individual holdings the fund owner has no control (I will have pay capital gains taxes when I sell those of course, this is a mechanism to avoid paying capital gains taxes twice on the same money, not a tax dodge). OGE maintains a list of stocks members of the Senior Executive Service are not allowed to own. Because I was a presidentially appointed member of the SES I had an added list of off-limit stocks. In addition to the obvious prohibition on owning stocks in drug and medical device companies, I couldn’t own stock in tech companies that had medical data divisions, or even railroads companies because the FDA regulates some transportation of food. I was also prohibited from talking about work with former colleague at GW or the US Institute of Peace (where I was vice president from 2013 – 2015) and prohibited from talking to my wife’s clients or contacts about my work. The amount of restrictions and paperwork involved, combined with the loss of income from selling high performing stocks, led one of our financial advisors to recommend turning down the job.
Once at the FDA, I had to clear all stock purchases with the OGE, and once a month I had to file a report of all stock purchases and sales over a certain (small) amount. Finally, within 30 days of leaving my position I had to re-report all of the purchases and sales made in my time at the FDA. I also had to again list every stock we own in all of our accounts. In addition, I had to report my wife’s income during my time in public services – she’s a consultant and university instructor- and I had to itemize her income by individual client and teaching appointments separately.
Now that I’m out of the FDA I am still strictly limited in what I can do. The chart below sums it up (I was sent this chart several times, and the rules were reinforced in mandatory training sessions and PowerPoint slides, and explained at length).
Serving as a senior advisor to the Commissioner of the FDA will of course make me attractive to future employers. I know about more complex issues than I did before, and I have more experience to add what was already a 20+ year career in Washington. The paperwork was a pain, I’m sure our retirement funds didn’t grow as much as they otherwise might have if I had not joined the Obama administration, I miss teaching, and of course am now looking for a job. Those were small prices to pay for the opportunity to serve the President and the American people.
The rules are important and there for a reason. If I didn’t like the rules I could have taken the advice to turn down the position. I would encourage all of those in the current administration claiming that the ethics rules that applied to me do not apply to them to rethink their position. Serving your country is an honor and a privilege. If you are unwilling to follow the rules to serve your country, the job isn’t for you.
(click to enlarge)