While it’s no secret that the Trump administration faces an unprecedented amount of conflicting interests due to a bevy of former business dealings by the current president, when senior adviser Kellyanne Conway provided a “free commercial” for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on Fox News last week, it provided one of the largest missteps from the administration to date. So bad in fact, that the chairmen of the Office of Government Ethics, Republican Jason Chaffetz, stated that her comments were “wrong, wrong, wrong” and “clearly over the line.”
These comments caused such an uproar from the public that the Office of Government Ethics website was down for a few days due to “an extraordinary volume of contacts from citizens about recent events” according to their twitter account. The website, which had 300,000 page requests in all of 2016, has already surpassed 5 million this year amid recent events.
Since using a government position to advertise a product or service seems like it should be illegal, we have compiled an easy list for reference concerning the Federal Employee Standards of Conduct.
Gifts from Outside Sources
Government employees are not allowed to solicit or receive gifts that are given based on their position, as a way of protecting against bribes. They are allowed to receive unsolicited gifts that do not exceed $50 in calendar year from single source and this excludes free attendance at widely attended gatherings such as a conference, and the cost of provided food and refreshments. Gifts motivated by a family or personal relationship, outside the lines of government or business, are also allowed.
Gifts Between Employees
Similar to gifts from outside sources, accepting a gift from another employee is also prohibited. Exceptions to this rule include being personal friends who are not in a superior-subordinate relationship, food and refreshments shared at the office, personal hospitality at a home residence, birthdays, or infrequent occasions of special significance such as a wedding or retirement.
Conflicting Financial Interests
A person cannot participate in an official government capacity if they have conflicting financial interests that involve their spouse, children, employer, or anyone else that would receive special monetary gain. For example, an employee could not purchase government supplies from a company owned by their spouse or child.
Impartially Performing Duties
Government employees cannot engage in duties that would make them seem impartial. Similar to conflicting financial interests, this involves relationships or contracts that are likely to have a financial effect. This provision also dictates that former employees of a party who received $10,000 or more prior to entering the service of the government cannot participate in matters involving that party for two years. A routine severance payment does not count towards this threshold.
Seeking Other Employment
If a government employee is seeking employment outside of the government, they are prohibited from participating in matters that would have a direct financial impact on the company from which they are seeking employment. However, “seeking employment” refers more to employment negotiations than an actual search. For example, requesting a job application does not constitute seeking employment, whereas sending in a resume does. This ban is in effect until discussions end or the possibility of employment is rejected.
Misuse of Position
This subpart dictates that public office cannot be used not only for private gain, but for the gain of friends, relatives, or people who they are affiliated with in a non-government capacity. This section also goes a step further to say that the endorsement of any product, service, or enterprise is also illegal. Furthermore, engaging in transactions involving information that is not available to the public or using official time for anything other than elected duties is also considered a misuse of position. Under these terms, Kellyanne Conway was in clear violation of the law.
This subsection provides guidelines on how individual agencies must require employees to get approval for outside activities such as receiving outside income, fundraising, and receiving compensation for speaking or writing outside of regular duties. It also prohibits the employee from serving as an expert witness in cases that involve direct US interests, unless it is on behalf of the US government.
This Isn’t the First Time
Even though most of these seem fairly straight forward, this is not the first time that the Trump Administration has made questionable decisions involving ethics. For example, on January 12 of this year, President Trump himself promoted the brand L.L. Bean via twitter, a company that had donated thousands of dollars to a PAC supporting his campaign:
Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L.Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L.Bean. @LBPerfectMaine
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
Late last year, Eric and Donald Jr., as directors of a nonprofit organization, were reportedly offering access to Mr. Trump for $500,000 in the form of a private reception and photo opportunity, in addition to a multi-day hunting and fishing excursion. Since then, the Trump team has walked back and denied any involvement in the organization on behalf of the sons. More currently, the Department of Defense is looking to rent out space in Trump Tower, which is still owned by the Trump Organization, to the tune of $1.5 million a year.
Regardless of your political beliefs, it’s clear that the current administration is tiptoeing the line on Federal Law, and if the beginning of this year is any indication, the Office of Government Ethics will have its hands full over the next four years.