Dear Donald –
Ethics are important. That probably sounds a little silly on its own and seems such a clear and basic sentiment that it’s really not worth saying at all. However, it’s a fundamental part of government service. Our actions should always be of the highest moral character, with a dedication to the core principles in our founding documents. We should always be looking out for the best interests of all of the American people and behaving with integrity when we do so.
You see, ethics isn’t about achieving the best ends, it’s also about achieving them using the best means possible. Our behavior, regardless of our intent, must always be transparent and fair. We cannot be duplicitous; people catch on to that and our government becomes less capable of governing. We cannot engage in self-dealing; the people understand whose best interests you’re concerned with.
I’ve noticed that you’ve made a number of comments arguing that you can’t have a conflict of interest because of your position and the fact that Federal laws on the issue don’t include you. While in one respect, you’re right, in a much more important one, you couldn’t be more wrong. There is the issue of whether you are legally bound to engage in certain actions and, clearly, the relevant law doesn’t apply to you. However, outside of that single Federal law, there is a broad ethical issue wrapped up in your potential conflicts. Your business dealings, or those of your children, mean that you and your family can, and likely will, financially benefit from your new role. While this isn’t technically against the law (constitutionality aside), it does raise questions about your ability to faithfully and dispassionately discharge your duties on behalf of the American people.
For example, you lease space in the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue from the General Services Administration, a government agency. You are responsible for appointing the head of that agency. When the lease is up for renegotiation, you will have your interests represented on both sides of the table – cash to be made by your family’s business if the lease terms are more favorable and a GSA administrator whose job is dependent on your good graces. It is difficult to see how your family will not benefit to the detriment of the American people.
Secondly, you are currently under audit by the IRS, a government agency with a head appointed by you. If that audit is closed without any additional tax liability for you, is it unreasonable for the public to ask why that outcome was reached – was it that you actually had no liability or was it that you influenced the levers of power for your benefit?
You’re not wholly unfamiliar with these types of vague insinuations of misdeeds. During the campaign, you quickly seized on a meeting between Bill and Loretta on her plane. They said they were talking about their grandchildren, but there was this nagging sense that maybe they were discussing the investigation into Hillary, currently being overseen by people who worked for Loretta.
Regardless of whether anything inappropriate happened in that plane, the fact that it could be interpreted that something inappropriate happened is enough. That’s how ethics in government works. It’s just as much about the appearance as it is anything else. Rumors of wrongdoing can undermine faith in our government just as quickly as actual illegality.
Last year, the Chief Information Officer for the Department of Education was called before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. There were questions about whether he may have had inappropriate relationships with Department contractors for his own personal financial benefit. You see, outside of work he did auto detailing and installed home theater systems. He claimed that both were hobbies that he did because he enjoyed them and did all of the work at cost, never making a profit. However, his financial records on the issue were shaky and his clientele included several individuals with IT contracts with the Department. In addition, he lived in the same neighborhood and was friends with one of the contractors.
Did he take work from contractors and make a profit and then turn around and steer government contracts to them? There was no smoking gun, no proof that any pay for play was actually happening. At the end of the day, it didn’t actually matter whether he had done anything wrong – whether there was actually any real exchange of money that was to the detriment of the American people. What mattered was that there was the appearance of inappropriate behavior and that appearance in and of itself was enough to ensure that he was no longer working at the Department of Education. In government, appearances matter.
As you move forward, I truly hope you reconsider your stance on conflicts of interest. Your actions have a huge impact on the faith the American people place in our government. If they think you are in the business of self-dealing, they will question what all of us do, every day. Now, more than ever, the public needs to believe that our government has their best interests at heart. Respect that. Honor that.