Tag Archives: ethics

Talk About Conflicts Of Interest….

A recent report issued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) finds that President Trump has 2,300 conflicts of interest. (For some reason, I’m having trouble linking to the report, but it’s easily Googled.)

We see a number of vague accusations of this administration’s “corruption,” but that all-encompassing description doesn’t tell us what the improprieties are, or why the behaviors are unethical. As a result, we are in danger of normalizing them.

The most common definition of a conflict of interest is a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. CREW puts meat on the bare bones of that definition. The report begins with an explanation of the importance of divestment and the reasons for it.

Prior to President Trump, every modern president divested their business interests before entering office. For decades, this norm of presidential conduct has served as an important signal for both Republican and Democratic administrations to show that, as the nation’s most powerful and prominent public servant, the president would not put personal financial interests before the interests of the country. Divestiture also served as an assurance to the public that the president would not open himself up to undue influence from special interests and foreign governments that might use his businesses as a way to curry favor with him and his administration.

And Trump?

The president has visited his properties 362 times at taxpayer expense during his administration, sometimes visiting multiple properties in a single day. The number of days he’s spent time at a Trump-branded property account for almost a third of the days he’s been president.

One-hundred eleven officials from 65 foreign governments have visited a Trump property.

CREW has recorded 630 visits to Trump properties from at least 250 Trump administration officials. Ivanka Trumpand Jared Kushner are the most frequent executive branch officials to visit Trump properties, other than the president himself. Jared has made 28 known visits, while Ivanka has made 23.

Members of Congress have flocked to President Trump’s properties: 90 members of Congress have made 188 visits to a Trump property.

President Trump has used the presidency to provide free publicity for his properties, which he still profits from as president. As president, Trump has tweeted about or mentioned one of his properties on 159 occasions, and White House officials have mentioned a Trump property 65 times, sometimes in the course of their official duties.

Political groups have spent $5.9 million at Trump properties since President Trump took office. In more than a decade prior to his run for president, Trump’s businesses never received more than $100,000 from political groups in a single year.

Foreign governments and foreign government-linked organizations have hosted 12 events at Trump properties since the president took office. These events have been attended by at least 19 administration officials.

There is much more.

Trump’s behavior has been a truly shocking departure from that of previous presidents, but in all fairness, the expectation that government officials will avoid both conflicts and the appearance of conflicts has been eroded over the years by practices in the Senate.

An article a few weeks ago in The Guardian focused on those practices.

As they set national policy on important issues such as climate change, tech monopolies, medical debt and income inequality, US senators have glaring conflicts of interest, an investigation by news website Sludge and the Guardian can reveal.

An analysis of personal financial disclosure data as of 16 August has found that 51 senators and their spouses have as much as $96m personally invested in corporate stocks in five key sectors: communications/electronics; defense; energy and natural resources; finance, insurance and real estate; and health.

The majority of these stocks come from public companies, and some are private.

Overall, the senators are invested in 338 companies – including tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft, oil and gas giants including ExxonMobil and Antero Midstream, telecom companies including Verizon, and major defense contractors such as Boeing – in the five sectors as categorized by Sludge.

As the article noted, this ownership is not illegal, but such investments raise real questions about lawmakers’ motivations.

We have a lot of work to do.

In 2020, Americans’ first priority must be delivery of an overwhelming, crushing defeat to Trump and the obsequious Republicans who continue to enable him.

Our second must be a wholesale “clean up” of government– reform of electoral systems and governmental structures that facilitate unethical behavior, from state-level gerrymandering and voter suppression, to Senate-level conflicts of interest.

 

About All Those “Best People”…Again

Talk about pots and kettles…take a look at the resume of Trump’s new press secretary–you know, the person charged with repeating the Administration’s unending accusations of sleaze and improprieties by journalists.

As Juanita Jean reports in her inimitable style:

If you’re wondering why Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, is not talking to the press or holding press conferences it’s because she’s … well… probably drunk or stealing something.

She was arrested for driving under the influence, speeding, and driving with an invalid license in 2013, according to the report, and the charges were later reduced to reckless driving. Grisham was also arrested for driving under the influence in December 2015, ultimately pleading guilty. She paid a fine and was ordered by the court into a treatment program.

One of the DUIs took place while she was a press aid to Trump’s campaign.

There’s more. Juanita notes that Grisham’s performance at previous jobs was–well, let’s just say substandard. She reportedly left AAA under a cloud for filing false travel and expense claims. She lost a job at something called Mindspace for plagiarism. She worked for an Arizona Attorney General who was fined for campaign finance violations, and on his behalf, responded to reporters’ inquiries by accusing the press of “overreaching, an invasion of privacy and abusive use of your role in the media.”

I’ve seen her picture, though, and she is attractive. When it comes to women, Trump’s definition of “best people’ usually revolves around physical appearance. (Big boobs are a plus.)

With men, of course, “best people” means one thing only: loyalty. Which brings us to the despicable William Barr. As both Talking Points Memo and the Washington Post have reported,

Attorney General Bill Barr has booked a $30,000 Gaelic-themed holiday party at the Trump D.C. hotel, the Washington Post reports.

The event is slated to occur Dec. 8 and will feature a four-hour open bar.

Again, there’s much more. (If Barr’s only ethical violation was improper enrichment of his boss, that would be a real improvement.)

Barr has yet to respond to multiple calls to recuse himself from the Jeffrey Epstein case–a case that could easily ensnare Epstein’s former good friend, Donald Trump.

He joined Wilbur Ross in refusing to comply with subpoenas issued as part of the Congressional probe of the Administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census–a refusal that led to a symbolic House vote of criminal contempt. (Symbolic, because the Department of Justice, which Barr heads, would have to enforce it.)

His pandering to Trump included a highly controversial and obviously partisan decision to launch an inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 Russia investigation–a decision that  fueled understandable concerns about the politicization of the Justice department.

And of course, there was his utterly dishonest 4-page “summary” of the Mueller Report.–a summary so inaccurate it received a reprimand from the famously taciturn Mueller himself.

A quote from Adam Schiff in Newsweek was focused upon Barr and Rosenstein, but it really applies to any of the “best people” who work for Trump for any length of time.

Congressman Adam Schiff harshly criticized Attorney General William Barr as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, suggesting they acquiesced to pressure from President Donald Trump to act unethically.

“What we are seeing is anyone that gets close to Donald Trump becomes tainted by that experience,” the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee said in an interview with CNN’s New Dayon Wednesday morning. “And the fundamental conundrum is, How do you ethically serve a deeply unethical president?” Schiff said. “And as we are seeing with Bill Barr, and as I think as we saw with Rod Rosenstein, you can’t.”

 In all fairness, it’s not a problem for most of the President’s “best people.” They can’t even spell ethics, let alone define the term.

 

 

Corruption And The Piety Party

Over the past few years, surveys have documented the growth of the so-called “nones”–Americans who have abandoned religion. Some are atheists or agnostics, others simply see religion as irrelevant to their lives. For many, that irrelevancy is the result of distaste for the hypocrisy and amoral behaviors of many self-described “pious” people.

I thought about the distance between ostentatious religiosity and ethical behavior when I read a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, titled “The Unimpeachable Integrity of the Republicans.”The GOP, as we all know, has become the piety party–Vice-President Mike Pence is its perfect, smarmy embodiment.

Milbank wasn’t addressing Republican faux religiosity–he was just marveling at the efforts of deeply dishonest Representatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. As he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the charges are serious: inappropriately redacting lines in documents turned over to Congress by the Justice Department, and explaining the legal basis upon which the department is declining to produce others. Horrific behavior! I may swoon…

Redacting the price of a conference table is clearly a far more serious offense than those committed by other members of the Trump Team: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused by former associates of stealing roughly $120 million; former EPA Chief Pruitt got a bargain condo rental from a lobbyist’s wife, used his job to find work for his wife and had taxpayers buy him everything from a soundproof phone booth to  moisturizing lotion.

Who else doesn’t merit impeachment?

Not the former national security adviser who admitted to lying to the FBI,not the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence, not the presidential son-in-law who had White House meetings with his family’s lenders, not the housing secretary accused of potentially helping his son’s business, not the many Cabinet secretaries who traveled for pleasure at taxpayer expense, not the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who bought tobacco stock while in office.

And certainly not the president, whose most recent emolument bath was poured by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince: Bookings by his highness’s entourage spurred a spike in the quarterly revenue at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan.

None of these “public servants” generated the indignation being focused on Rosenstein the Redactor.

Milbank helpfully described the pious paragons so determined to expel this scofflaw from governance–the same Republicans “so above reproach” that one of their first votes was an attempt to kill the House ethics office. He began by identifying some who are regretfully  no longer available:

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), an obvious candidate, resignedover his use of public funds to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another ideal choice, resigned after word got out of a sexual-harassment settlement with a staffer the married congressman called his “soul mate.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also can’t be of use. He resignedover allegations that he urged his mistress to seek an abortion.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) likewise won’t be available. He quit when a former aide alleged that he offered her $5 millionto have his child as a surrogate.

But never fear–as Milbank demonstrates, the GOP has a truly impressive bench.

There’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who remains “tentatively available” despite his arrest this week for insider trading, along with the five other House Republicans who invested in the same company but haven’t been charged yet. There’s also Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “assuming he has free time”–he’s battling allegations that he covered up sexual misconduct when coaching at Ohio State.

Others who could judge Rosenstein: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who pleaded guilty to assault after body-slamming a reporter; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is retiring after a naked photograph of him leaked online; and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI over the alleged use of campaign funds for his children’s tuition, shopping trips and airfare for a pet rabbit.

Nunes himself is battling allegations that he got favorable terms on a winery investment and used political contributions to pay for basketball tickets and Las Vegas trips.

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and research suggests their support for him and his band of thugs and thieves remains strong. No wonder people who actually care about ethics and morality are repelled by “faith.”

They’re All Nuts

The other day, I spotted a bumper sticker that really says it all: “Any Sane Adult: 2020.”

It isn’t just our demented President. It’s his whole sorry crew.

Initially, I thought Scott Pruitt was just corrupt–bought and paid for by the fossil fuel companies he used to represent. And he certainly is corrupt, but the sleaze is only part of the problem. It appears he is as delusional and grandiose as Trump.

A recent profile of Pruitt in Mother Jones is chilling.

Pruitt’s quieter style masks the extent to which his approach to governing is the practical implementation of the president’s wrecking-ball rhetoric. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “get rid” of the EPA “in almost every form.” In just his first year in office, Pruitt has already made stunning strides in that direction. He’s dismantling the Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which imposed greenhouse gas limits on fossil-fuel-fired power plants. He has slashed enforcement efforts against polluters and tried to repeal rules meant to safeguard drinking-water supplies. He has threatened to roll back fuel economy standards. He’s moved to weaken new rules for smog, coal ash, and mercury pollution, poorly enforced a new toxic-chemical law, and refused to ban the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos. He’s taken aim at dozens of lesser-known rules covering everything from safety requirements for replacing asbestos to emergency response plans in hazardous chemical facilities.

Pruitt has chased away longtime EPA staff and dismantled scientific advisory boards. He has put representatives of fossil fuel companies in charge of key environmental decisions.

Pruitt has been almost cartoonishly contemptuous of the EPA’s work, pushing draconian cuts to the agency’s science, climate, regulatory, and enforcement offices. Meanwhile, in just his first year, he has reportedly expanded his around-the-clock security detail at a cost of at least $2 million annually. He spent $25,000 on a secure phone booth inside his office, at least $12,000for flights around the country between March and May (each of which included a leg in Tulsa), $58,000 on chartered and military flights over the summer, and nearly $40,000 on a trip to Morocco to promote natural gas exports. His frequent first-class trips with his security detail have added more than $200,000 to that tally.

Pruitt cites his evangelical Christianity to justify his environmental positions, especially his climate-change denialism.

But his biblical references are not restricted to climate change. Pruitt’s two guiding stars—evangelical faith and political zeal—sometimes seem interchangeable. In October, when he announced a controversial new “conflict of interest” policy barring researchers who receive EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory boards, he quoted the Book of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you’re going to serve.”

The GOP is filled, of course, with politicians who twist biblical references to advance whack-a-doodle positions.

Pruitt evidently sees no conflict between his brand of Christianity and unethical behavior. Recently, there have been revelations about a sweetheart deal for a room in a Washington condominium owned by an energy lobbyist. One reporter noted that taking what look very much like bribes from energy lobbyists “is just par for the course for Pruitt.”

Pruitt wanted the EPA to purchase a “time-share” in a jet airplane for his personal use (and was evidently miffed when he was told it would be prohibitively expensive). He disregarded rules to give large raises to personal cronies he’d brought on staff. Newsweek reports that Pruitt uses high-ranking EPA investigators– who are supposed to be delving into environmental crimes– as his personal security detail.

“This never happened with prior administrators,” a former official of the agency’s Criminal Investigations Division told The Washington Post, which first reported the news. “These guys signed on to work on complex environmental cases, not to be an executive protection detail.” The Post report suggested that the EPA would spend $800,000 for “the security detail’s travel expenses” this fiscal year.

The corruption and grandiosity are appalling, but those pale in comparison to the damage he is doing to the environment. CNN recently obtained a secret memo detailing Pruitt’s new control over enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

In a new directive, Pruitt says he–and he alone– will make final decisions under the Act.

Pruitt has explicitly stripped authority from his staff and regional administrator and turned himself into America’s Water Czar. By secret fiat. If anyone wants to open a coal mine, pesticide plant, or factory farm, they no longer have to show that their actions won’t damage local streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. They just need a nod from Pruitt.

Evidently, Pruitt doesn’t have grandchildren who will have to drink water, breathe air, or live on a ravaged planet.

I wonder where I can get that bumper-sticker……

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Confederacy Of Dunces

It’s something new–and depressing–every day.

Just last week, Trump fired both Andrew McCabe and Secretary of State Tillerson in the most humiliating manner possible; one of his close aides was escorted out of the White House without even being given time to gather his belongings (he was under investigation for “financial crimes” of an unspecified nature); and multiple rumors surfaced about the imminent replacement of National Security Advisor McMasters with crazy-as-a-loon chickenhawk John Bolton.

Now, we learn that an advisor to Ben Carson–he of the $31,000 dining room set and the repeated admonitions to America’s poor about “personal responsibility”–has quit among questions of fraud and the inflation of his biography.

He said he was a multimillionaire – an international property developer with a plan to fix America’s cities through radical privatization. He felt that Donald Trump’s administration was where he was meant to work.

“It was a natural fit,” Naved Jafry said in an interview. Citing connections across the military, business and academia, he said: “I bring, and draw on, experiences from different areas of knowledge, like a polymath.”

Jafry was contracted to work for Trump’s housing and urban development department (Hud). His government email signature said his title was senior adviser. Jafry said he used his role to advocate for “microcities”, where managers privately set their own laws and taxes away from central government control.

Among other things, Jafry had claimed control over a multimillion-dollar trust fund; a claim inconsistent with court records showing that he struggled to pay rent and bills.

Wasn’t a major part of Trump’s “attraction” that he was rich? Trump voters drew two (unwarranted) conclusions from that wealth– that rich people must be smart and that they would be less incentivized to (mis)use tax dollars for personal gratification. Those same claims were made about the cabinet of wealthy white guys he’s assembled.

Um…not so much….

It turns out that HUD had agreed to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” in addition to the $31,000 dining set that–it also turns out–had been personally selected by Carson and his wife for his office. The news followed an administration proposal to cut $6.8 billion, or 14%, of HUD’s annual budget.

Then there’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, a former Wall Street executive purportedly worth as much as $35 million, who managed to run up bills in excess of $800,000 in his first six months in office for travel on military jets, (and whose wife made news by bragging about her pricey designer clothes on social media).

Scott Pruitt may not believe in science (or, apparently, the importance of clean air and water), but he evidently believes in using tax dollars to avoid those pesky citizen types who do. The environment secretary has said he has to travel first-class because of threats from members of the public who object to his climate-change-denying, regulation-slashing approach to government.

He also spent as much as $43,000 on a soundproof “privacy booth” inside his office to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and $9,000 for biometric locks and to have his office swept for listening devices. Earlier this month it was reported that he used $6,500 in public money to hire a private media firm with strong Republican ties to help produce a report promoting his accomplishments.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, was the subject of a blistering report detailing ethical violations in a trip to Denmark and Britain that mixed business with pleasure, including a trip to Wimbledon and a cruise down the Thames.

When Interior secretary Ryan Zinke wanted to go horseback riding with Mike Pence, he took a government-funded helicopter – one of three such journeys in 2017 that cost a total of $53,000 of public money. In addition, Zinke, who favors oil, gas, coal and uranium mining on public lands out west, has been rebuked by the department watchdog for failing to keep proper records of his travel expenses and to disclose who paid for his wife to accompany him on work trips.

Health and human services secretary Tom Price was forced to resign last September after it was revealed that he used at least $400,000 and probably more than $1m in taxpayer funds on private and military flights for himself and his staff.

This Administration has clearly demonstrated that wealth doesn’t guarantee competence. As these examples show, neither does it promote ethical behavior.

But it sure seems to translate into a sense of entitlement.