A federal ethics gadfly joins a non-profit where he can keep being a gadfly

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Serving in the federal government comes with specific ethical requirements, whether you’re the president or a GS-2. Walter Shaub led the Office of Government Ethics for several years, now he’s joined an external gadfly, the Project on Government Oversight, where he’s leading a new Ethics and Accountability initiative.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: I feel like I should call you Dr. Shaub. You’re like a doctor of ethics here, so it’s nice to have you on.

Walter Shaub: If I’m gonna be a doctor it’s more Dr. No because nobody likes talking to the ethics guy. The answer is always no.

Tom Temin: And I guess my first question is you went to a very well known reputable research organization, how come you didn’t go to a big fat law firm in DC and really cash in here?

Walter Shaub: You know, I’ve dedicated my life to government ethics and making the federal government function better. And I just wasn’t ready to stop doing that. This is what I care about. And you know, money isn’t everything.

Tom Temin: Alright. So tell us about this new ethics and accountability initiative that POGO has launched, what’s it all about?

Walter Shaub: Sure. POGO’s a really well established watchdog group that dates back to the early 1980s. And even may have done some work back in the 70s. And they focus on all kinds of issues involving government, abuses of the authority and integrity of government officials and waste of taxpayer resources to try to make the government better, and in bringing me on, they decided to expand their focus on government ethics. I think we’re in a time where the public is more aware of government ethics issues than they ever have been before. Not necessarily for good reasons. But a good outcome is that everybody’s aware of it now. And I think we need to make sure that people still stay engaged. Some people may be thinking, the threat to government ethics is over. But no administration has been perfect on government ethics. And I think the message that I have for leaders these days is that it’s not enough to go back to the way things were, we’ve now learned that the government ethics program is weaker than we ever thought it was. And it’s time for the government to commit the resources and the political will to enact some serious reforms, both through legislation and through executive branch action to try to make government more transparent and more accountable to the people across the board.

Tom Temin: Now, government ethics, technically, when someone joins an administration, for example, has to do with financial conflicts of interest in what connections or ownership of securities they might have. Should it be broader than that, though? Is that part of the issue that you see?

Walter Shaub: Yes, I think the financial conflicts of interest are an incredibly important part, and there’s a lot of work to be done there. But I’d like people to view it as something broader. It includes issues like transparency of government and the access to information through the Freedom of Information Act and other mechanisms and protecting whistleblowers, and strengthening the inspectors general who are the people’s eyes inside the government. But it also includes something people don’t often think about, the civil service protections that give federal employees the freedom to refuse illegal orders and to insist on upholding the rule of law. That is a thing that people often overlook. People grumble about how hard it supposedly is to fire a federal employee. That’s somewhat of a myth, I can say as a manager who has had to fire people before inside the federal government. But those rules don’t exist to protect the federal employees. They exist to protect the American people. And the federal employees with their protections that can enable them to resist the unlawful commands of a political master who’s gone corrupt really are the last line of defense when congressional oversight has failed. inspectors general aren’t getting the access they need to information. Federal employees and whistleblowers especially, are our eyes and ears inside the government. And they are also the means for ensuring that government plays by the rules.

Tom Temin: And what about a more subtle form of I guess you could call it corruption or misuse of government resources and authority. And that is people that might go beyond what the law requires or what the law even allows, in, say, overzealous rulemaking aimed at one particular industry or one particular group, whatever the case might be, that’s more subtle and also much more difficult to deal with, because it can be done in what looks like a perfectly legal framework?

Walter Shaub: I think the key there is ensuring that government follows the laws that establish procedures because there are procedures under the administrative procedures that for example, that force them to operate transparently and go through a rule making process where the public and interested stakeholders, including businesses have an opportunity to comment. And it also gives people the opportunity to challenge in court. I feel like in that area, though deep pocketed companies have been pretty aggressive and successful in litigating over regulations, my focus is more on the areas where the little guy doesn’t have really the same resources to challenge government corruption. One thing we’ve learned is when federal officials violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution or conflict of interest laws, if the Department of Justice or Congress doesn’t pursue the issue, you don’t even have standing in court to challenge that. And I actually think one of the ways to create more enforcement of the existing rules would be to give them some teeth by a creating some more government officials who can function independently to enforce them, but be to give the public standing to challenge certain actions in court. And we have the precedent of litigation over regulation that has shown the way to do it, you can now consider doing that for other things where the corruption doesn’t necessarily have a mechanism for being challenged right now.

Tom Temin: I can understand that. Because, you know, the doctrine of sovereign immunity sometimes seems to be a little bit too much on the sovereign immunity side, and not so much on the public side. But on the other hand, let’s face it, there’s nothing more voracious than the legal bar. And when they sense blood, rightly or wrongly, sometimes they tend to cluster around things. So how do you balance the need of the public to be able to get redress versus something that just turns into a litigation industry against well meaning public officials?

Walter Shaub: Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to balance because the government has to be able to function. And one of the means for pursuing that is actually just more transparency. So in some areas, you won’t go as far as maybe some people like in terms of creating a civil right to sue, but you might create more requirements for transparency, that, you know, the government doesn’t follow them, those become enforceable. But sometimes the best way to fight a government lie is through transparency and exposing the lie. If the government has to release information either proactively or in response to requests, then the voting public gets to evaluate the government’s performance. And, you know, frankly, this covers all kinds of things ranging from outright corruption to just ineptitude and government waste. And, you know, one of the programs Pogo has been focused on is the failures of the F-35 program, the fighter jet that just can’t seem to get off the ground and really be up and running. I think there’s been a lot of work in that area, particularly by POGO, but other groups as well, and exposing sort of the waste there that the public needs to know about. And so I think you have to balance the government sufficiency with the need for redress. And I think one of the ways to do that is in areas where you’re not able to really go all in on giving people the right to sue over failures, you can focus on transparency mechanisms, and give the voters and the public and their representatives in Congress more tools to challenge things outside of court, either at the polls or in congressional hearings.

Tom Temin: And another issue is that the oversight priorities of Congress changes with the party in power in a particular chamber. And yet, it seems there are problems with programs that really ought to be bipartisan in the oversight they attract from Congress. So maybe Congress has a little bit of soul searching to do here to find greater areas where no one would disagree that this is something that’s got to be looked into.

Walter Shaub: I think that’s really true. One of the things that I admired about POGO and drew me to them is that they have a really good track record for working with people on the hill from both parties. And there are issues where they have traditionally overlapped. One in particular, is strengthening the protections for inspectors, generals so that they can do their job without fearing that they’ll be fired by a president if they do their job, too. Well, traditionally, there are a number of Republicans in Congress, including Senator Grassley, who have really cared about inspectors general — now is an opportunity where there are enough Democrats and Republicans who care about inspectors general that this seems like a good window of opportunity for strengthening their authorities to conduct investigations and their protections against retaliation. And along the same lines, whistleblower protection really needs to be strengthened in so many ways, and inspectors general can’t really do their job without people willing to come forward and talk to them. So it feels like those are two areas that are ripe for some real bipartisan work on the Hill. It’s challenging because we’re in an extremely polarized environment that seems to get more polarized all the time. But sometimes an outside intervener, like POGO or another group can actually help bridge that divide and connect the two sides and help identify legal areas for reform that might appeal to all sensibilities on both sides of the aisle.

Tom Temin: Walter Shaub is former director of the Office of Government Ethics, now with the Project on Government Oversight. Always great to talk with you, thanks so much for joining me.

Walter Shaub: Thanks Tom.

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