McDonnell v. United States: OGE Issues Advisory on Supreme Court Decision to Ethics Officials

Posted: 12:09 am ET
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Last month, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) issued a legal advisory related to the SCOTUS ruling on bribery charges against former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell.  To recap, the former governor, and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, were indicted by the Federal Government on “honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion charges related to their acceptance of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, while Governor McDonnell was in office. Williams was the chief executive officer of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that had developed Anatabloc, a nutritional supplement made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco. Star Scientific hoped that Virginia’s public universities would perform research studies on anatabine, and Williams wanted Governor McDonnell’s assistance in obtaining those studies.”  According to court filings, to convict the McDonnells, the Government was required to show that Governor McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts.  The case was argued in the Supreme Court in April 2016, and SCOTUS decided on the case in June 2016 (see SCOTUS case here in PDF).

Excerpt from the OGE memo:

On June 27, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in McDonnell v. United States, 579 U.S. ___, 195 L. Ed. 2d 639 (2016), which vacated the lower courts’ conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell on bribery charges. The U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is issuing this legal advisory to emphasize that the Supreme Court’s holding in McDonnell does not affect other applicable prohibitions on Federal employees’ solicitation or acceptance of gifts, including 5 U.S.C. § 7353 and 5 C.F.R. § 2635.202(a).

The advisory notes the following:

5 U.S.C. § 7353 prohibits an executive branch employee from soliciting and accepting gifts from any prohibited source, unless an exception promulgated by regulation applies. Likewise, the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch, at 5 C.F.R. § 2635.202(a), prohibit an employee from soliciting or accepting any gift, directly or indirectly, if the gift is given because of the employee’s official position or the person offering the gift is a prohibited source. There is no requirement for the gift to be made in connection with any “official act” for these prohibitions to apply. These prohibitions apply to anything having monetary value unless the item is excluded from the definition of “gift” under 5 C.F.R § 2635.203(b) or qualifies for one of the narrowly tailored exceptions set forth in 5 C.F.R. § 2635.204.

OGE also says that “The Court’s opinion did not address the application of 5 U.S.C. § 7353, 5 C.F.R.§ 2635.202, or any other ethics law; rather, the Court opined solely on the construction of 18 U.S.C. § 201(a)(3). Consequently, the McDonnell opinion also does not affect OGE’s legal interpretation of the criminal conflict of interest statutes at 18 U.S.C. §§ 202-209 or OGE’s interpretation of the gift prohibitions at 5 U.S.C. § 7353 or 5 C.F.R. § 2635.202(a).”

Read the full advisory below:

Related items:

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Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good?

— Domani Spero

Via ProPublica:

So who else is a special government employee at the State Department? The department won’t say — even as eight other federal agencies readily sent us lists of their own special government employees.

A State Department spokeswoman did confirm that there are “about 100” such employees. But asked for a list, she added that, “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

Meanwhile, after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in July for the same information, State responded in September that no such list actually exists: The human resources department “does not compile lists of personnel or positions in the category of ‘special government employee.’”

Creating such a list would require “extensive research” and thus the agency is not required to respond under FOIA, said a letter responding to our request.

In late September, after we told State we were going to publish a story on its refusal to provide the list, the agency said our FOIA request was being reopened. The agency said it would provide the records in a few weeks.

The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list. It has been four months since we filed the original request.

Continue reading, Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say

ProPublica notes that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, ex-chief of staff Cheryl Mills, and Maggie Williams have been identified previously in news reports as SGEs.  That means the State Department only needs to track down 97 other SGEs. Unless, of course, it wishes to provide a fullsome list and include previous SGEs during the Clinton and Rice tenures at the State Department. Oh, but wait a minute — if State is not tracking how many SGEs it has working there, how did it come up with the round figure of 100?

Anyway, another great mystery of the hour is this: How come other agencies are able to disclose this information but not the State Department?  That has not been properly explained.  Special Government Employees maybe special but they are still public employees.

Very special ones, of course.  According to U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an SGE’s agency can use special waiver provisions to resolve financial conflicts of interest arising under 18 U.S.C. § 208 (a criminal conflict of interest statute prohibiting an employee from participating in any particular Government matter affecting personal or “imputed” financial interests). An SGE is not covered by 5 U.S.C. app. 4 §§ 501 or 502 (civil statutes limiting outside earned income and restricting certain outside employment and affiliations). 5 C.F.R. § 2635.807 (a regulatory provision concerning the acceptance of compensation for certain teaching, speaking and writing) also applies differently to SGEs.

The USOGE explains why this category of government employees is different:

Some ethics provisions that apply to executive branch employees apply differently to an employee who qualifies as a “special Government employee” (SGE), or do not apply at all.

Congress created the SGE category in 1962 when it revised the criminal conflict of interest statutes. Congress recognized the need to apply appropriate conflict of interest restrictions to experts, consultants, and other advisers who serve the Government on a temporary basis. On the other hand, Congress also determined that the Government cannot obtain the expertise it needs if it requires experts to forego their private professional lives as a condition of temporary service. Since 1962, the SGE category has been used in a number of statutes and regulations as a means of tailoring the applicability of some restrictions.

As defined in 18 U.S.C. § 202, an SGE is an officer or employee who is retained, designated, appointed, or employed to perform temporary duties, with or without compensation, for not more than 130 days during any period of 365 consecutive days. The SGE category should be distinguished from other categories of individuals who serve executive branch agencies but who are not employees, such as independent contractors (who are generally not covered by the ethics laws and regulations at all).

State/OIG released its Review of the Department of State Ethics Program in September 2013.  That report indicates that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  These are “filers” of  OGE Form 450, Confidential Financial Disclosure Report and OGE Form 278, Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report. Unfortunately, no list of SGE names.  But the fortunate thing about the bureaucracy is paperwork!  While HR may not “compile” a list of this category of employees, surely its Designated Agency Ethics Official have access to this information? If not, where are the paper trails of OGE Form 450s and 278s. Would tracking those require “extensive research”?

Other notable items from the report:

  • In a 2012 report, the Office of Government Ethics was critical of the Department of State’s Ethics Program, noting backlogs in processing financial disclosure reports and ethics agreements, problems with ethics training, and insufficient staff. The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure, a division within the Office of the Legal Adviser, had largely eliminated the backlogs by the end of 2012. However, the Office of Government Ethics report expressed concern about the Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure’s limited resources to process a workload that is consistently higher than that of other agencies.
  • In 2012 the Department of State provided annual ethics training to less than 70 percent of those employees required to complete it. The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure implemented an online training module in late 2012 that will make ethics training more easily available to employees, but the Department of State does not have a definitive plan to increase the percentage of employees taking the training.
  • The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure is not systematically tracking ethics agreements to ensure that employees comply with the provisions.1 The database used by the office is incomplete and does not include important relevant information.
  • The Department of State does not have a consistent definition of who is required to file confidential financial disclosure reports. This shortcoming has a negative impact on the entire ethics program.

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PAS – Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed

The same OIG report also says “Other personnel, such as Schedule C employees and some special government employees, must also file public financial disclosure reports. These individuals are usually readily identifiable from their employment mechanisms and documents.”

Well, darn it, back to HR. Unless, of course, the State Department’s HR Bureau knows nothing about such “employment mechanisms and documents”?

Special Government Employee is a category created by Congress. It is perfectly legal to have SGEs working at government offices.   Other agencies like Treasury, Energy  and Commerce have their own SGEs and were forthcoming (well, after FOIA) with the information. Look, the Energy Department has 8 pages of SGEs. The Securities and Exchange Commission even included the annual salary of its sole SGE.  And  the State Department says with a straight face “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”  

Blink.  C’mon.  Really?

Please don’t make this another case of It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat!

The State Department’s SGEs, presumably approved by the agency and its legal and/or ethics office ought to withstand public scrutiny.   Sharper bulbs at State should counsel, whoever is making these decisions, to disclose the agency’s SGE list.  Otherwise, the State Department need to explain why,the non-disclosure of its very special government employees is for the public good.

Yes, we’d like to know why “not knowing” is for our own good, and then we’ll call it quits.

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