No matter what political ideology we have, we all agree that we deserve ethical government. But, trust in government in the US and around the world is at historic lows. Much of this falling trust comes from seeing political officials use their power to enrich themselves at the cost of the public good.
In this episode, Walter Shaub—a leading voice—helps us understand why ethics in government is worth fighting for. He also shares his fascinating experiences doing just that, along with issues at the forefront today. Shaub is one of my personal heroes, and I'm excited for you to hear why I admire him so much.
About Our Guest
Walter Shaub is a government ethics expert and one of the most important voices advocating for integrity and accountability in government. He leads the Government Ethics Initiative for the Project on Government Oversight.
Before joining POGO, Shaub served in key roles with other nonprofit watchdogs, government agencies and private sector employers. He served for four years as the Senate-confirmed Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). While in that role, he was a member of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) and CIGIE’s Integrity Committee. Shaub served at OGE for a total of nearly 14 years as a staff attorney, a supervisory attorney, Deputy General Counsel and, finally, Director. Before that, he served in the General Counsel offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Outside government, he also worked for the law firm of Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux & Roth, P.C., and as a CNN contributor.
Shaub is the winner of multiple awards and recognitions. He's also written opinion pieces for a variety of publications, including the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, the LA Times, and other publications. Shaub is licensed as an attorney in both the District of Columbia and Virginia. He earned his J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law and his B.A. in history from James Madison University.
Follow Walter Shaub on Twitter: https://twitter.com/waltshaub
The Project on Government Oversight: https://www.pogo.org/
Shaub's podcast, The Continuous Action: https://www.pogo.org/series-collections/the-continuous-action
The US Office of Government Ethics: https://www.oge.gov/
Alarming trends in trust of government: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/
A New York Times report on Congressional conflicts of interests: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/09/13/us/politics/congress-stock-trading-investigation.html
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[00:00:00] Aaron - Interview: Honestly, if, if somebody had asked me 10 years ago if I thought a government ethics expert would have nearly 700,000 followers, I think, on Twitter, I would've laughed at them.
[00:00:12] Walter Shaub: Yeah. I will say that I'm still surprised that I had that many because it did stop growing abruptly the first time I criticized Biden. Apparently some of the followers just really were in it for the Trump- bashing and not for objective ethics analysis. I think the ones who have stayed have embraced the idea, "Let's start caring about government ethics." And so it's kind of fun because I feel like there was a, a self-selecting purge for a couple years and a replacement of people who just truly care about this stuff.
And so now I don't get abused on Twitter every day because the ones who hate me are gone...
[00:00:53] Aaron - Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode five: You Deserve Ethical Government. This episode of How To Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.
Before we begin this episode, I'd like to ask for your help. Listeners like you are the most powerful people in helping a podcast to grow, and that happens in two ways. First, the most effective thing you can do is to share an episode with a friend or on social media. The second thing is to leave a podcast review with Apple Podcasts. The best part is both these steps cost you nothing but a few minutes of your time. So thank you for helping the podcast to grow.
Nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy, you'll find the city of Siena. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was governed under the burden of factions and fraud. But then it enjoyed a period of remarkable peace and prosperity that lasted for 80 years, ending in 1355.
The heart of this prosperity was found in the medieval town hall called the Palazzo Publico. It still stands today and houses frescos, huge paintings on its walls that are around 700 years-old. These frescos are unique because they were commissioned by the government instead of the Church, and therefore are mostly secular instead of religious, like the vast majority of art at the time.
The most famous artwork there is a set of frescos by the artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Together, these paintings of his are called "The Allegory of Good and Bad Government." They're filled with symbolic imagery. On the east and north walls, you can see the panels called "The Effects of Good Government," where people are dancing, trading with each other, and traveling in safety and peace.
Sitting on a seat of judgment, you find the city ruler. Above him float symbols of wisdom and justice, and at his feet two children are playing. On the west wall you see a fresco called "The Effects of Bad Government," which ironically has been badly damaged with time.
It depicts a desolate, decaying city and a countryside beset with drought and war. Its ruler is the tyrant with horns on his head and fangs protruding from his grimacing mouth. Above him, figures representing avarice, pride, and vainglory. At his feet, a female figure of justice tied up and held captive.
These frescos adorn the council room where the nine elected officials of the city would carry out their business. It was a reminder to them, and a promise to the citizens of Siena, that a wise, just government ensures their prosperity and peace. These rulers were meant to demonstrate virtues like justice and humility, and to avoid the vices that surrounded the tyrant. Those vices are frenzy, divisiveness, war, cruelty, treason, and fraud.
When these images were painted by Lorenzetti, Siena was a flourishing and happy republic, one of the most prominent cities of Europe thanks to its commerce and art. But eventually, over the following 200 years, the city fell prey to factions and power struggles by the wealthy merchants and rulers. The nine were deposed. Siena lost in war to the rival government of Florence, never again to reach its former glory. It fell to every vice warned of by Lorenzetti.
[00:04:46] Walter Shaub: The hardest thing to do is persuade people in positions of authority that ethics isn't a nice overlay to have on top of what they do, but actually fundamental to what they do and to their success.
[00:04:58] Aaron - Narration: If my guest today was an artist, he would be Lorenzetti reincarnated. His name is Walter Shaub, and he's the Senior Ethics Fellow with the Project on Government Oversight and former Director of the Office of Government Ethics, the Federal agency charged with ensuring ethical decision making throughout the Executive branch.
In this role, he was the highest ranking ethics officer in the entire Federal government. He also runs the podcast on democracy and government ethics called The Continuous Action.
Shaub is a personal hero of mine. But I want to warn you about this episode as we begin. If you are a staunchly political, Democrat or Republican, you're likely to get uncomfortable as you listen. Shaub is going to call out, by name, a wide range of prominent politicians for their ethical lapses. And he also offers praise where deserved. Just know that he's an equal opportunity critic, who is focused on what it takes to have a government we can trust.
[00:06:00] Aaron - Interview: I think one of the things I've admired most about you as I follow you is that partisanship really doesn't define what you do, even as others try to paint you as partisan.
[00:06:10] Walter Shaub: Right. They've done it a little less now that I've been sort of critical of the Biden administration, now all of a sudden I seem to be Fox News's BFF. But it's never been driven for partisanship for me. You know, I, I worked in the Office of Government Ethics, and worked closely with the White House in both the Bush and Obama administrations. And I was ultimately a political appointee under Obama, but I had equally good working relationships with both the Bush and Obama White House because I felt the goal that I have, letting the people choose the policy through through elections, is only achieved if there isn't corruption, if people aren't self-serving. And so focusing on these sort of support functions and process functions to make sure that the government isn't tainted by conflicts of interest or misuse of position, I always figured no matter who's in power that's going. To benefit America, and so that's what I cared about and it's what I still care about now that I'm out of government.
[00:07:16] Aaron - Narration: Shaub left government in a way that was unprecedented. He's the only Director of Government Ethics to ever resign since the role was created by Congress, and he did it for honorable reasons. This is a story to come later, though. These days, he works for the project on government oversight, or POGO for short. POGO is one of the most important public service organizations you've maybe never heard of.
[00:07:43] Walter Shaub: So I'm with the Project on Government Oversight right now, and it's an organization I just absolutely adore.
When I was in government, you know, we'd get letters occasionally from good government groups expressing concerns about one thing or another, and I'd often forward the letter on to an inspector general at an agency to see if they wanted to investigate something or pass it on to agency officials. But I really didn't have a lot of power to do anything.
But if I got a call from the Project on Government Oversight, it was all hands on deck. We would want to meet with them, we would want to solve the concern quickly because they made us nervous. I decided when I left government, I wanted to go to the place that made people nervous.
[00:08:24] Aaron - Interview: Yeah.
[00:08:24] Walter Shaub: Because they were serious about their work and, and still are, and are not partisan. They're focused on issues rather than parties. And those issues range from government ethics to government spending, which are related in the sense of accountability. For instance, the government not hiring contractors with histories of fraud or corruption. So all of this still points in the direction of aligning the government's functions with whatever policies the government has decided to approve after the people have chosen their leaders.
There's also a division that focuses on Constitutional rights and their work can be wide ranging from focusing on Death in Custody Reporting Act, where the government's not doing a good job, tracking who's getting killed in custody, to the detention of children detained at at the border and mistreated. The organization doesn't focus on immigration policy, but they do focus on the violation of basic rights. And so it's a fairly wide ranging focus, but it all points toward the government serving the people and tries to stay mostly neutral on policies because that's for the people that decide in elections.
[00:09:42] Aaron - Narration: Both with OGE and at Pogo, Shaub's work has included the efforts of Inspectors General. Here's a bit on what they do, and how they operate.
[00:09:52] Walter Shaub: An inspector general is in the large departments a statutorily created position, in the small agencies they've just created it on their own. And these individuals are supposed to be outside the management chain of command, and they conduct independent investigations and audits.
So they really are the eyes and ears of the people inside the agency looking for fraud, waste, abuse, corruption, to make sure the government is effectively using its energies in a way that's aligned with the people's interests and all pointing in that same direction. That work has, just goes straight to the heart of everything I care about.
[00:10:34] Aaron - Interview: How was it that you ended up choosing a career in government ethics? Because that's not an area that you sort of like, you know, you don't go to the career counselor and the career counselor says, "Oh, you're destined for government ethics." So how did you find your way into this as a profession?
[00:10:48] Walter Shaub: This is a topic that came up from time to time at the Office of Government Ethics, where I worked in government more often than you'd think. Because we'd look around at our fellow staff and some of us were sort of lovable oddballs, and we were all odd in our own individual ways, and we wondered what did we have in common? How did we all get there?
I think to a person, with maybe one exception, none of us went into our adult years thinking we were going to get into government ethics or any kind of ethics. We all had in common a love of public service and a desire to go serve the country. And so we went into government, and then you make a series of choices as different assignments come up. I always aimed for a wider variety to sort of sample everything, and I just viewed it as putting another tool in the tool belt.
And I think to a person, all of these individuals working there had made a series of career choices and a series of volunteering for assignments that led them to wind up applying to either work in an agency's ethics office or at the Office of Government Ethics, which is sort of the centralized office for, for the Executive branch's ethics program. So it's interesting because it's a self-selecting group that tends to veer toward that over time. And the only exception I ever met was one of the employees there who had been a philosophy major, who just had it in his heart that that's what he wanted to go do, but he was the unique exception to the role.
[00:12:21] Aaron - Interview: So what is it about this work that's so compelling for you and so fulfilling?
[00:12:25] Walter Shaub: You know, I truly felt that it went to the heart of the government's mission. You know, I've worked in a variety of different settings in the government, helping veterans, helping the Food and Drug Administration, helping Health and Human Services, and ultimately the Office of Government Ethics. And I, for a while was in the private sector representing Federal employees, especially law enforcement agents and managers.
In every case, again, there's a common theme of individuals who are driven by a love of public service, but for that public service to be effective, it has to be aligned. It has to all be pointing towards the public's interest.
[00:13:11] Aaron - Narration: One of the recurring themes in this episode will be public cynicism about government. You might have been listening to Shaub just now and thought that he sounded naive. If you believe that every government employee is just a partisan hack, you should know, that just doesn't reflect reality.
[00:13:29] Walter Shaub: You know, the government is an amazingly nonpartisan place to work, contrary to, I think, what, what some big voices in the country would sell. I think that by and large, I have never been a place where people were so unwilling to talk about politics. And every time I ventured into the private sector or the nonprofit sector, it was a culture shock because in the government when new people come in and they aren't steeped in the culture and they start talking about politics, somebody more senior pulls them aside and tells them, We just don't do that here. And, and that's true in just about every single Federal government agency.
[00:14:12] Aaron - Narration: A healthy government requires more than just a civil service that avoids partisanship. Government also carries immense power, and as Lord Acton famously, "Power tends to corrupt an absolute power corrupts absolutely." This is where ethics in government is so essential. We need a system of assurances that serve as a check on those who wield government power.
[00:14:38] Walter Shaub: But it's also true that aside from operating in a nonpartisan fashion, you also have to operate in a selfless fashion. And if there are people there with conflicts of interest, they have financial investments that will be benefited or harmed by the work that they're doing, then even if they're the best person in the world who would never let that influence their decision making, the public has no ability to have confidence that those financial interests are not tainting their work. And I think for the public, there's a right not only to have honest representatives and government serving your interest, but also to have them show you that they're putting your interests first.
And I think those dual responsibilities can only be served by a strong ethics program that's transparent and strict. They'll often say, "Well, I would never be corrupted by a fancy cocktail party. There isn't a glass of champagne and a and a little shrimp on a stick that's going to corrupt me."
Well, the problem is it's an appearance rule more than anything, because the public needs to have confidence that you are not out there being influenced by those little gifts. And I think what these individuals often miss is that a lot of these gifts, the gift itself isn't even the threat. It's that it's designed in a way where you're spending time with the gift giver and so you're invited to some lobbying firm's party and you spend four hours there. You can be sure somebody has been specifically assigned to bend your ear the whole time you're there.
And of course that's at the most innocent extreme. At the far end of the extreme, you have the Navy brass, top Navy admirals and officials were being bribed by a guy named Leonard Francis, who the admirals dubbed Fat Leonard because he was a big guy who was bribing them with prostitutes, with drugs, with parties, and with cash. And he made tens of millions of dollars off of corrupt contracts that they steered his way. By the way, they unfortunately all got slaps on the wrist.
And so that's why I, I was drawn to this because I love the idea of making sure that those services the government's supposed to be providing are pointed in your direction as the public. And we could disagree on politics and different administrations are going to have different priorities or different answers. One may favor the environment and the other may favor trade overseas or something. And so there are shifts there, but we'd like to make sure that those policy choices are the only thing that varies.
[00:17:23] Aaron - Interview: It definitely feels like public trust in government is at an all time low. And so what, what happens if we lose this? I mean, what happens if we lose that trust in government And what are the things that an average citizen can do to restore it?
[00:17:36] Walter Shaub: So I, I think that both of those questions get at the same issue. I think that goes straight to the heart of why Congress needs to ban its members from trading stocks. All of these kinds of things erode public trust in government.
Now, in reality, we're so polarized that it's going to be hard to ever get fully restored to levels that we were at before because the two sides are always going to be suspicious of things the other side does. And and so that's always going to influence people's trust of government. And so there will always be a certain percentage that's dissatisfied with it and maybe that's a good thing in a democracy, because you never want the people in charge to be too comfortable. But we are at such abyssal lows that something has to be done.
[00:18:28] Aaron - Narration: I want to dwell on this point that Shaub is making here. The tangled mess of how we see government has blinded many of us from seeing and understanding the ethical failings of government officials.
We'll always be divided over politics for issues like immigration or abortion, but there's no reason that any of us should want officials who improperly enrich themselves or abuse power for personal gain.
If we allow the champions of our policies to be corrupt as a reward for their loyalty, if we ignore their ethical failings, we erode the very foundations of our democracy. Our cynicism makes us into our own worst enemy.
[00:19:12] Walter Shaub: And you know, we're operating in a larger context, I think, where democracy is in jeopardy, it may be so overwhelming that there isn't much you can do to restore confidence in government until you feel safe that democracy is not going to go by the way you side.
But you can't ignore those other things because I they add fuel to it. I think people's despair over not being able to have confidence in government either makes them more vulnerable to questioning the usefulness of democracy or makes them wonder if it's worth fighting to defend it, even if they are on the side of believing in democracy.
And I think objectively some of these things are just wrong. And so it can't be bad for public morale to address things that are just wrong.
[00:20:07] Aaron - Narration: One of the issues we're going to discuss quite a bit is Congressional stock trading. As it stands now, members of Congress are allowed to buy and sell shares of individual companies, all while having unique information and power that might affect the value of those shares. Basically, members of Congress can and do get away with insider trading.
This year there was a unique surge of effort to stop this practice, but it was derailed. You see, this is an issue that has both parties divided internally. Some Democrats and Republicans want to ban Congressional stock trades, while others want to protect it.
But the public is overwhelmingly in favor of a ban. The problem is that the party leaders in Congress are the ones who oppose this ban and they're getting their way.
[00:20:55] Walter Shaub: I want to try to avoid painting either side into a corner, but sometimes these days, I feel some of the biggest opponents of reigning in Congressional stock trading were people who are very comfortable complaining about Donald Trump's conflicts of interest.
I don't think you'll find anybody in this country who was more concerned about Donald Trump's conflicts of interest than I was. I stood up and gave a speech on January 11th, 2017, the day he announced that he wasn't going to be divesting and had all those phony files full of what were probably blank pieces of paper and talking about his fake blind trust, and I criticized it and urged him to divest.
And I assumed that I was signing the death warrant for my career. I figured I'd be fired on January 20th at 12:01 and I figured that I'd be unemployable for a while. I still had student loans, didn't have much in the way of savings. But, it was a risk worth taking because having a President with conflicts of interests would kill the government ethics program, or at least put it into suspended animation for four years.
So I think that context for what I'm going to say next is important to understand how I actually put it on the line to oppose that guy. But it is the same thing when members of Congress have numerous stocks.
And let's be clear that their spouse's interests are identical to theirs. The conflict of interest law that applies to 2.1 million Federal civilian employees treats their own interests the same as their spouses'. Because, first of all, even in a court proceeding marital communications are privileged and you could never get at that. Second of all, we just have no way of knowing anyways what anybody says to their spouse.
And it's not just one side. You've got Tommy Tuberville, the Republican in the Senate, who is up there as one of the biggest stock traders in Congress.
And so that has to have an effect on public confidence. The New York Times and several other publications have run lists of conflicts of interest by showing what members held and what they voted on.
And I found a video of one senator complaining to the Secretary defense about him reducing the number of aircraft in our arsenal, while she held Lockheed Martin's stock. And of course Lockheed Martin makes many of the planes that we fly, and so reducing the arsenal could lower the value of her stock. And she didn't break any laws, but the public had no way of knowing that she had stock in Lockheed Martin while she's pressing the Defense Secretary about a budget request that would cut the number of aircraft in our arsenal.
There are several members who are fighting for a congressional stock band. You have people across the political spectrum too. You have people does a far right as Matt Gaetz and as far left as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and you have people in the center like Abigail Spanberger, and these people are supporting the Congressional stock ban.
And I'd say the leaders of that effort are, are probably Spanberger, Jayapal, Warren, and Ossoff, two in the Senate two in the House. And Warren and Spanberger have numerous Republican co-sponsors for the bills they've introduced.
And so I think there are people who care about this stuff in government and it's just that in Congress it takes a mass, overwhelming majority. You gotta have 60 people in the Senate to get anything done. And if you have a Leader who likes stock trading, she's going to be an obstacle in the House.
[00:24:46] Aaron - Narration: To make Lord Acton's point, listen to this crazy story about the husband of a presidential nominee for a prominent political appointment. One of Shaub's former roles was to help nominees and their spouses comply with ethics requirements prior to their service.
[00:25:01] Walter Shaub: And I had one ridiculous spouse of a presidential nominee one year. This, this cracked us up.
You know, when I was in the government, I helped presidential nominees eliminate their conflicts of interest. We'd review their financial disclosure reports and have them sign ethics agreements. And one of them had all these investments that they had to get rid of. And they were like, "Well, what am I going to do with that?"
And I, and we were talking to the spouse and we said, "Look, you could put them in mutual funds." And those are exempt from the conflict of interest law. They're diversified, so they don't create a conflict of interest.
And he said back to me, in this nasally voice, "Mutual funds are for suckers in the middle class."
And we had to hit mute on the speaker phone because we all almost fell out of our chairs laughing. It was like a cartoon villain talking to us.
So we're not telling them they have to take cash and put it under a mattress and, and have somebody guard it with a shotgun so that their life savings don't get robbed while they're at work. We're talking about moving them out of individual stocks into mutual funds, which is what, you know, most people in the country who invest do anyways.
And banning members of Congress is the low-hanging fruit. Somebody said to me the other day that this is just the least of our problems. And I said, "Well, what you're saying to me is that the people we sent to Washington can't even solve the least of our problems, because this one's a no brainer and it's easy."
[00:26:25] Aaron - Narration: Again, and I need to stress this, ethical government is and should be a bipartisan issue. In fact, it should be the most basic requirement we have for the people we elect and appoint at all levels. If you think your side is doing everything right, then you are not paying attention. The answer is not to just elect the other party. We have to elect the ethical people within those parties.
[00:26:51] Walter Shaub: While I think, and here I'll filibuster a little bit, while I think that the Trump administration was a calamitous ethics failure, I think the Biden administration came in with the low standards of being better than Trump. And that is a really sad state of affairs because they don't feel like we're even back to the level that we were prior to the election.
I've often said, I think Biden's view of ethics is very Clintonian in its outlook, in that you bring in the lawyers and you find out exactly where the line is, and then you bring out an electron microscope and you get as close to the finest point of the line that you can. And that's where you go, and you hope you don't fall over a little bit.
You put a milk lobbyist in charge of the USDA . You have the staff of SKDK, the influence pedaling firm run by Anita Hill, rotating through the White House on a high-speed spin cycle through that rotating door. You're giving waivers to government officials for massive percentages of their interests. And hiring shadow lobbyists. We have a shadow lobbyist running the State Department.
And so I feel like there's plenty of reason for people to be frustrated. I think it's understandable and I think we can do way better. But it's just disappointing. So I don't mean to draw false equivalencies. There's no comparison between the current administration, or really any administration, and the corrupt Trump administration, but I still think we deserve a lot better than we're getting right now. And I think that's why people feel disheartened.
[00:28:35] Aaron - Narration: Before you lose hope, you should know that Shaub, who's seen it all, has not lost hope. Part of the reason is that the great majority of people working in government are acting ethically every day. There's a bulwark of good people in civil service who stand in the way of those who would shred ethical standards.
[00:28:57] Walter Shaub: If we put them on a scale and put all of the people who are concerning me on one side and all the others who are not concerning me on the other, I think the scale would weigh heavily in favor of those who are not a concern.
I also think the irony of Trump referring to the "Deep State" as he put it to refer to the civil service, I actually think we do have two levels of ethics in government. I think the career civil servants are subject to incredibly high standards and have an incredibly strong culture of ethics and patriotism.
You know, you don't have to pay a bribe when you go to get your passport like you do in some countries. You don't have to worry that your veterans benefits are going to be delayed because the person sitting across from you at that table knows how you voted and doesn't approve of that. And you don't have to worry that your airline is going to circle the airport for three hours because the White House has told air traffic controllers to slow down the airline run by the guy who criticized the President.
These are things that don't happen because the career civil service is just focused on serving you. And I, I just love that population so much and I love the culture. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule in any workforce of 2.1 million employees, but I don't think you'll find as a whole a more patriotic or dedicated workforce anywhere.
You know, even during the Trump administration, there were still good people, even at political levels. When I left government, he wound up nominating and the Senate confirmed a director of the Office of Government Ethics named Emery Rounds, who I think the world of, and he's a Trump appointee. But I sincerely hope the current administration nominates him for another five year term when his time is up, because he's doing a terrific job with the limited tools that he has.
I think people have to remember that. I guess for as long as we don't have tanks driving down the street, there's a lot that's still going right.
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So with a strong culture of ethics in the civil service, the problem is at the political level with elected officials and political appointees. The biggest issue here is that they're in charge of our government and only voters are in charge of them.
In fact, this is by design through our Constitution. If we were to install ethical enforcers over our politicians, those people would wield an influence that might backfire against the very purpose of having them. Instead, we voters are meant to be the ethical enforcers. It's up to us to boot out the dishonest and self-serving politicians who cross the line.
And sadly, we don't do that enough. As a result, Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court police themselves, and they often do it poorly. The US Supreme Court doesn't even have a code of ethics for the nine justices.
Self-policing does not work well, and over recent years it has been getting worse, because voters are more concerned about their side winning than they are about electing good people. And so Congress and the Presidency get away with ineffective measures that only give the appearance of ethical standards. Consider the STOCK Act, which was passed 10 years ago and requires members of Congress to report the shares that they buy and sell.
[00:33:20] Aaron - Interview: The STOCK Act is a good example of this. I mean, this has been in the law now for over a decade, and it is annually violated by members of Congress with no consequence. But the problem, but there, there's an interesting even Constitutional question here. How do you establish oversight at the highest levels at all three, in all three branches from Congress to the Executive, to the US Supreme Court? How do you establish ethics oversight?
[00:33:46] Walter Shaub: So that's a conundrum that really came into clear focus during the four years of the Trump administration. What do you do if the person at the top doesn't want to do anything about this? And I think the problem predates him by far.
I, it's fair to say as probably in many other areas of life, it's much harder to hold powerful people accountable than powerless people. And in the executive branch every year the Office of Government Ethics publishes a prosecution survey full of data that they get from the Department of Justice of people who have been prosecuted or sued for civil monetary penalties for violating government ethics laws. And with one exception this year, I think it's been about 15 years since any political appointee made the list. I'm not sure. I guess David Fabian at GSA was a political appointee, but it is extremely rare that they pursue a political appointee. It's just a $200 fine and they can't even bring themselves to impose that fine.
I mean, they passed a law that gave them... first of all, they passed a law that exempted themselves from the conflict of interest law. Then they passed a law that requires disclosure, but imposes a super light penalty, like a parking ticket for not filing a timely periodic transaction report to show that you just bought some stock. And then they can't even bring themselves to assess that late fee. So yes, it's, it's absolutely disheartening and unfortunately the system kind of breaks down at the top.
The laws are extremely easy to enforce at the career level because often the Department of Justice will actually decline prosecuting someone because it was clearly an offense, but they didn't profit from it, so just fire the person. But getting fired from a Federal job and losing your chance to earn a pension and losing your health insurance and losing your salary, and maybe you live in a region where the Federal government's the only employer, or maybe you live in a city, but it's a real bad mark on your resume that you just got fired from this Federal agency. So you're going to have trouble finding any employment. That's a pretty serious penalty, and the threat of that consequence keeps people in line, but there's no similar threat at the political level.
And so I do think we need more enforcement. And I have a counterintuitive sense that the way to get more enforcement is to stop grandstanding with speeches about how we should have more criminal penalties and instead have really severe civil penalties. Because I think DOJ would be more likely to seek civil penalties than it is to seek criminal penalties.
And so for instance, imagine if you failed to disclose that you bought a stock. Okay, Now you forfeit it. What if that stock was like $900,000 worth of stock? You're going to have a pretty significant incentive to disclose it. And in fact, your incentive to disclose it will be proportional to the threat it poses to the integrity of your services, because the bigger the asset, the more you stand to lose if you had to forfeit it for not disclosing it.
[00:37:12] Aaron - Narration: For much of his career job was a non-political civil servant. That all changed when he was nominated by President Obama to lead the Office of Government Ethics. This put Shaub through the highly fraught confirmation process in the Senate. And even though he had helped many nominees navigate these choppy waters, it was still an unpleasant ride for him.
[00:37:32] Walter Shaub: So my job in the Office of Government Ethics, prior to being nominated for a position, had been working with Presidential nominees for Senate-confirmed positions without ever knowing I was going to become one.
And I had a front seat to what a miserable process that was, and they all hated it, and they all complained, and the paperwork is extensive. You know, they had to fill out a financial disclosure, which takes a lot of time because the rules are so complex. And unlike the security clearance form where you disclose it and then they try to prove something and it's a lie. We assumed that you were going to get your disclosure wrong, so there was a whole process built around working with you to flesh it out.
But then there was also the Senate questionnaire and you know, the, each committee has its own set of questions. There was an effort about 12, 10 years ago to try to get them all to adopt the same set of questions and they, they reacted as though you were, you were trying to steal their power away from them. And then if you were in any way controversial, well, they may throw in a hundred other questions that have to be massaged and answered carefully.
Then there's the background check, which, in the case of a confirmed position, necessitates the FBI coming out to your house and interviewing you, which by the way is just scary on its face. I mean, even if you've done nothing wrong, it's, it's very intimidating to have an FBI agent there asking you all kinds of questions.
In some cases, again, for controversial nominees or positions, there's member-level meetings with the Senator. And then there's a hearing, which can either be a cake walk or it can be brutal. Uh, and then there are follow up questions for the record. And what often happens is your hearing gets postponed and postponed and postponed, and then you get a vote, if you're lucky, uh, and then you can start in the job .
So these folks were always exhausted and frustrated and it was, it took some real skill dealing with them.
But even knowing all that and having seen all of that, I would say running through, it felt like going through a gauntlet and it was absolutely miserable. And I was a noncontroversial career level, you know, career government official candidate as opposed to somebody with a history of, you know, showing up on cable news and, and railing against some cause or another
So it's, it's not an easy ride. It's, it's not pleasant.
[00:40:00] Aaron - Narration: Shaub was approved by the Senate for a five year term, but he ended up not staying in his office for the full five years. That's because following the election of President Trump, the executive branch stopped complying with many of the ethics policies and practices that had been in place for decades.
The sharp disagreements between Shaub's office and the White House escalated to the point that Shaub's only option was to resign, the first and only time a Director of Government Ethics has ever done that. The full context of what happened here is so fascinating and important.
[00:40:36] Aaron - Interview: The other moment I wanted to discuss was when you decided to resign, which was an unprecedented decision as a director of OGE.
[00:40:47] Walter Shaub: Boy, that was unpleasant. And I will say it took like a couple years for the eye twitch to stop. At, at the peak I had a double eye twitch, one in each eye, and it just made me feel like I looked like a lunatic. I don't think others could see it, but I could certainly feel it. And the insomnia was brutal.
But you know, just to give you a little context, we worked with both the Clinton and Trump campaign before the election to prepare them because there's so much to know about the nominee process that I just described, and so much work we have to do with them and so much opportunity for it to go wrong.
And there's a group called the Partnership for Public Service that runs basically like a training academy for both sides. And actually Clinton and Trump people were sitting in a room together, playing nicely in the sandbox with experts from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations teaching them about how to stand up a government, because we all shared in common a belief that the country is very vulnerable during a transition. That's when an enemy could attack or a market could crash or a natural disaster could hit, and if you don't have leadership positions filled that could slow or hamper the response. And so it's really important, even if you disagree with a candidate, to get a lot of those positions, at least key ones, filled quickly so the nation isn't basically unarmed against disaster.
Unfortunately, and, and I worked well with both of them and liked actually the people on those transition teams, and I wished them both good luck on election day in a nonpartisan way, saying, "You know, however it comes out, I, I hope things go well for you personally, and I look forward to working with whichever one of you wins. And if I don't see the other again, I, you know, it's been nice working with you."
The next day I reached out to the Trump people to congratulate them and schedule our first meetings and they had to postpone it because there was some uncertainty. And then they disappeared, and they had all been fired.
After that they had no transition team and no one who had gone through the five months of training for how to do a successful transition. And they just were clueless and didn't know what they were doing and everything was just an absolute mess. And we could have a whole episode just talking about those 73 days between the election and the inauguration. Sufficed to say, it was a bumpy ride from the start.
And as I said, when I spoke out about Trump not getting rid of his conflicts of interest, I assumed that was the end for me. It wasn't, for a variety of reasons, including that the then head of the House oversight Committee came after me and botched his effort so badly that I suspected scared the White House, that there could be repercussions.
So anyways, it, it was difficult. And as we worked with their nominees, I would see members of the staff coming out in the hall just rubbing their foreheads, saying, "Why does everything have to be so hard?"
And ultimately there were these battles. And it really came to a head in May, when I suspected there were lots of secret ethics waivers in the White House, and so I decided to do a data call for all waivers of ethics waivers that had been issued in the past year, which would've been eight months of Obama-era waivers and four months of Trump waivers. So I thought that seemed fair, and in fact, we wound up digging in on a couple waivers that the Obama administration had failed to share with us. So we were even-handed in pursuing it.
But the Trump administration basically told us they were not going to release those, and so I wrote them a letter and it was quite hot. And I cc'ed Chuck Grassley and referenced a letter Chuck Grassley had sent about the importance of transparency and waivers when Obama was President. And that got him interested. And apparently I'm told by others that he went looking into it and that sort of forced the administration's hand.
And so they came around to release them and then when they finally released them, all the metadata on them and the lack of signatures on them suggested they were ginned up afterwards in order to do this release. Which leaves me wondering if the secret to the secret waivers is that there were no secret waivers, there were just violations that they then papered over with retroactive waivers, uh, which is not a thing that exists.
And all, at that point, things got really tense. And Trump, at one point during that was in Saudi Arabia with the famous incident with the glowing orb and the sword dance. And we got word that a call had been placed to him from the White House. I assumed it was probably asking for permission to fire me, and I thought, "Well, bring it on."
But they didn't, and I went into the summer. But what they did was cut off all communication. And the problem is I had to review their financial disclosure reports and sign off on them, and we weren't getting basic answers about their holdings, about their duties, and we just couldn't evaluate them.
And I thought, "I think this is checkmate, because if I refuse to certify any of them, I'm going to look partisan because surely some of them don't have conflicts of interest, maybe even most of them. But if I do certify them all, some of them probably have conflicts of interest and I'm just going to be window dressing for corruption."
So I had a choice between looking partisan or being a window dressing for corruption. And at the same time, I was starting to worry about the future for my staff and for the agency.
And so to make a long story a bit longer, I had asked myself pretty much every single day, because it was a brutal winter and spring, three questions: I asked, "Can I still perform the mission or, or can I still accomplish the mission? Can I accomplish it ethically and moral? And can I tell the truth?"
And I thought when the answer to any of those three questions is no, it's time to quit. And I still felt I could tell the truth. So that one I checked off. I still felt that I could do what I was doing ethically and morally. But I didn't feel I could accomplish the mission because I was stuck on how do you certify or not certify these reports?
And I decided that I could have more impact on the outside, speaking freely. There was so much I couldn't say. I wasn't, I was forbidden by law to interact directly with Congress on my own initiative, and so I quit and wound up finding a bigger platform after I left and probably became a bigger thorn in his side once I was out of government than when I was in government.
But it was the most painful decision I ever had to make because I had intended to spend my entire career in the government and loved what I was doing, but just felt I had no choice left but to blow it all up. And so I did.
And I will say, you know, it led to about four years of misery and a year of sort of recovery. And only now am I feeling really good. So you make a choice like that, you pay some consequences.
[00:47:57] Aaron - Narration: My friend and co-author, Bill O'Rourke, likes to say that everyone faces at least two quitting decisions in their life, where they have to decide if they can stay in their job and still maintain their integrity. I can't imagine having to live through a quitting decision, though, like the one that Shaub faced. This decision brought a tragic end to a decades long career in civil service, where Shaub was an ethics champion. And as you heard from him, Shaub faced all kinds of difficult challenges as a result.
But it didn't wipe away his successes from all those years, and I asked him to reflect on those.
[00:48:35] Walter Shaub: I think inside government, the thing that I'm most proud of looking back now is the four years that I spent as director of the Office of Government Ethics before Trump, because we really took sort of a sleepy agency and made it into a very efficient machine. And it would get kind of bureaucratic explaining it, but sufficed to say that we became more effective and faster at our review of financial disclosure reports and ethics, creation of ethics agreements. We got much more vigorous in conducting training for the 4,000 ethics officials in the government, and auditing the ethics programs of 135 or so Federal agencies, and that just felt really good.
It was an amazing staff, and watching them reach their potential as we streamlined and standardized things and got rid of what didn't matter and focused on what did I think, I'll probably always look back on that as the highlight of my accomplishments. On the outside, it's much harder because you don't have the power, you don't have the resources, and you don't have the law and the facts and the inside knowledge on your side.
But I'm incredibly proud of the work that POGO does and thinks that it's just truly highly effective, amazing organization. And so I think my pride now after being in government comes more from being part of the Project on Government Oversight than anything I've done individually.
[00:50:14] Aaron - Interview: What was the missed opportunity that you most regret?
[00:50:17] Walter Shaub: That's tough. I mean, I certainly have regrets, but in terms of missed opportunities, you know, I think one missed opportunity was finding a way to get the public interested in government ethics before Trump. We certainly tried and it feels a little funny to call it a missed opportunity, because the truth is, I don't know how I would've done it even now, like going back.
I, and so maybe somebody who's much better at marketing and much smarter at engaging the public will find a way to do that if our world ever calms down and people want to go back to sleep and not pay attention to government ethics. My recommendation would be something that my former chief of staff at OGE told me from day one, which is find a way to get the public to care about this, and I don't know that I succeeded.
I mean, it, they certainly started caring once it became a clash with Trump, but I felt like we were out on a street corner waving signs in the air saying "We exist." And I look at a place like the New York Conflict of Interest Board and their web, their, their Twitter account at least, is just hilarious and engaging and good-spirited. I just feel like that organization has figured out how to reach the public.
So I, I think maybe it's more a case of regret than lost opportunities. I regret that I wasn't good enough at figuring out how to engage the public and get them interested, but I can't fully call it a lost opportunity, because if I had the chance to do it again, I still don't know how I would do it.
[00:51:50] Aaron - Interview: I relate to that feeling, by the way, as an ethics professor. So...
[00:51:53] Walter Shaub: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:51:56] Aaron - Narration: As I mentioned at the start, Walter Shaub is one of my heroes. I have so much admiration for people who do the right thing in the face of daunting consequences. There's a reason that bravery features in all of our stories, these are the kinds of people we should honor and emulate.
But what makes Shaub especially inspiring is that he did all of this as a public servant. He exemplifies the kind of character, the care and self-sacrifice, that government service is all about.
[00:52:28] Aaron - Interview: So my last question, and I ask this on behalf of my students, you know, who are heading into careers of public service. You have a very unique perspective on public service, based on your experiences and your expertise. What advice do you have for the people that are aspiring to work as public servants?
[00:52:45] Walter Shaub: You know, I would encourage young people to go into government. I think it's an absolutely wonderful career. I think that the feeling of going to work, feeling like you're working for the good guys, or at least the common good, even if you don't always feel like the folks you report to are good guys, truly is a wonderful feeling.
It's, it's a level of fulfillment that I think makes up, double-fold, for the lower salary. And I truly view public service as serving your country the way I think some in the military view going into the military. Now, obviously it doesn't come with the same risk. So, so those are heroes. But nevertheless, it's, it's truly about serving your country and you can feel good about that every day.
And I think even in times when you have a leader who doesn't seem to respect the civil service and doesn't seem to view democracy as a bedrock common-ground that if we don't have, we don't even really have America, at least early in your career, you'll be far enough down that there will be layers between you and them, and the layers don't change. I mean, there are multiple layers of career Federal employee leadership before you reach the political level. And that's just going to stay that way because there are 2.1 million civilian Federal employees, and I'm not sure if that includes the Postal Service. So it might be closer to 3 million if you count them, and only 4,000 political appointees.
And so you'll be insulated in the, the earlier years of your career, and then later in your career you'll have more choices. So I wouldn't let that deter you.
But I do think sending good people into government right now is an investment in the defense of democracy. Because democracy can only survive if you have a government that respects democracy and cares about democracy, and ultimately by the time you reach a level of significant influence in the government, hopefully a lot of your peers have come with you and you'll be a formidable force to reckon with for anybody who wants to break the law or, or steer us away from democracy. If you are in there staying true to the law and the legal requirements and carrying out crucial functions to keep our society afloat, I think that there isn't a higher calling you could answer to for most of us.
[00:55:19] Aaron - Narration: In Lorenzetti's "Allegory of good and Bad Government," while the tyrant is surrounded by the six vices that I mentioned, the wise and just ruler is surrounded by figures representing six virtues. They are: Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnaminity, Temperance, and Justice.
At the bottom of that fresco are written these words, "The holy virtue Justice, where she rules, induces to unity the many souls of citizens. And they gathered together for such a purpose make the common good their Lord. And he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the virtues who sit around him."
We deserve virtuous government. We deserve ethical government. But it's up to us to ensure that we have it. We common citizens have to use our voices and our votes to choose ethical leaders. And we have to exercise the self-restraint to turn away those who promises victory at the cost of virtue. In the end, we get the government, we choose, so to flourish, we need to choose well.
I'm incredibly grateful to Walter Shaub for accepting my invitation for this interview and offering his time, passion, and wisdom to help us all understand these things better. If you want to support his work, visit the Project on Government Oversight at pogo.org, where you can also find his podcast, The Continuous Action. Season two will be released in the coming months, and we've linked to all of these things in the show notes.
In the next episode, we'll have a chance to hear from Dr. Cecilia Conrad. She's a Stanford-trained economist, CEO of the Lever for Change Foundation and former managing director of the MacArthur Fellowship Grants. This is the grant program that's famous for selecting two dozen geniuses each year in a broad array of fields, from mathematics to music to medicine. Dr. Conrad will share her career path as an economist woman of color, as well as her unique expertise in spotting genius and in accelerating solutions with impact.
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This episode was written and recorded by me. Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes all of our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.
Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.