Pruitt may be gone, but Trump administration’s ethical void remains

Pruitt may be gone, but Trump administration’s ethical void remains
© Greg Nash

We know what happens when an organization has an ethics and compliance program, but its leaders disregard those standards regarding their own behavior or that of key personnel, and retaliate against employees who raise concerns about those violations. An ethics and compliance program can be a false promise if an organization’s leaders violate that code or tolerate violations by high-level personnel. The actions of an organization’s leaders speak louder than the lip-service they give to its ethics standards.

Although Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA to make formal decision on regulating drinking water contaminant | Utility to close coal plant despite Trump plea | Greens say climate is high on 2020 voters’ minds EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Court tosses challenge to EPA's exclusion of certain scientists from advisory boards MORE lasted only 16 months as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, he amassed a mindboggling record of ethical abuses during that time. With a laundry list of scandals, it sometimes seemed as though Pruitt was trying to violate every government ethics rule on the books.

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Despite an unprecedented number of transgressions and more than a dozen separate investigations, Pruitt retained his position and the effusive praise of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE. As journalists continued to expose Pruitt’s numerous offenses, many Americans were left scratching their heads wondering what it would take for Pruitt to lose his job. Although Pruitt resigned on July 5, it remains unclear which allegation of improper behavior triggered the end of his tenure.

 

The Trump administration’s mishandling of Pruitt’s ethical abuses echo scenarios that play out in the private sector every day. Many companies have detailed ethics and compliance policies and procedures, but lack a true ethical culture. Their senior executives regularly claim to adhere to the “highest ethical standards,” yet routinely demonstrate through their actions that profit is far more important than ethics.

The Justice Department has made clear that it expects companies to not only “talk the talk,” but also “walk the walk” when it comes to ethics and compliance. In its “Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” the Department outlines the key “Hallmarks of Effective Compliance Programs,” and highlights the importance of establishing the proper tone at the top through the commitment of corporate leaders to a “culture of compliance.” The guide also makes clear that disciplinary action is a critical component of an effective compliance program.

It is troubling when a private company fails to take disciplinary action against an employee who violates its ethics standards. But it is even more disturbing when the government fails to take disciplinary action against a public official who violates ethics standards, because public officials are stewards of the public trust, and their abuse of that trust not only undermines the public’s confidence in government, but in our democracy as well.

President Trump’s toleration of Pruitt’s multiple violations was sending a message to the federal work force and the public that an employee’s personal loyalty to the president was more important than compliance with government ethics standards. One has to wonder how the Justice Department can continue to expect companies to create a “culture of compliance” when senior U.S. government officials blatantly abuse their positions for personal gain.

Pruitt’s actions, appalling as they were, cannot be considered in a vacuum. There have been serious ethics allegations against other cabinet members, yet Trump has failed to impose discipline even in the face of clear ethics violations. Pruitt’s violations were enabled by a president who doesn’t seem to care about ethics, so long as his appointees remain loyal to his agenda.

Pruitt may be gone, but the Trump administration’s ethical void remains. We fear that the federal government’s commitment to ethics – with its 10-point “Code of Ethics for Government Service,” its detailed “Standards of Conduct” filling nearly 50 pages of the Code of Federal Regulations, and its thousands of professionals serving as ethics officials in federal agencies — will become remnants of a distant promise, no more significant than long-bankrupt Enron’s lofty “Code of Ethics.”

Kathleen Clark is a professor of Law at Washington University.

Jessica Tillipman is an assistant dean at the George Washington University Law School where she teaches an anti-corruption and compliance course.