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For White House staffers and even high level officials, there are strict ethical standards that are supposed to be followed. In fact, some of those ethical standards are codified in criminal laws. Among the most well known type of ethics crime occurs when an official accepts a bribe.
Generally, the ethics rules seek to prevent government officials and employees from making decisions that they have a personal or financial stake in. This breaks out into two topics: conflicts of interest and personal financial interests. Not surprisingly though, the rules do contain enough leeway, and the executive branch is vested with enough power, that even clear conflicts can sometimes fly under the radar. Additionally, using a public office to garner publicity for private industry, such as by making an endorsement, even if no money is exchanged, is prohibited.
Personal Financial Interest
If a government official has a personal financial interest in a certain business or industry, there are specific rules requiring the official to disclose their interest. If the personal financial interest is deemed to be significant enough, then, usually, the official will be required to recuse themselves from the decision making process, program, committee, or other activity.
However, if an official fails to make a required disclosure, there could be criminal penalties imposed.
Conflicts of Interest
Similarly to the financial interest rule above, having a personal conflict of interest can also disqualify an official from performing some function, or decision making. For instance, if an official’s sibling, significant other, or close friend, has a financial interest, this could present a conflict of interest. Other examples include former employment in private industries, familial ties to private industry, or significant stock holdings by family.
It should be noted that not all conflicts of interest will rise to the level of requiring recusal or disqualification.
Endorsing Products or Services
Government officials are prohibited from using their public office to endorse products or services from private industry. Recently, White House staffer Kellyanne Conway got in some hot water over her allegedly accidental endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s product lines. Even if an official isn’t paid for, or even asked to make, an endorsement, there are ethical concerns that the official is misusing their office for long-term, future gains.
While Conway isn’t expected to face any real sanction or criminal charges, the executive branch may want to reconsider the decision to cancel the required ethics course for staffers.