How to Restore Government Ethics in the Trump Era

From today’s New York Times by Walter Shaub, Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics:

Shortly after his inauguration, President George H. W. Bush counseled freshly minted White House appointees that, “It’s not really very complicated. It’s a question of knowing right from wrong, avoiding conflicts of interest, bending over backwards to see that there’s not even a perception of conflict of interest.” He paired this straightforward declaration with action, establishing unified standards of conduct for the executive branch and resolving his own conflicts of interest. These words and deeds set the tone for ethical governance.

Since the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act, our past presidents entered government with an appreciation for the importance of tone from the top. Though exempt from the conflict of interest statute, which bars other officials from working on matters affecting their financial interests, they all voluntarily divested conflicting holdings and put the proceeds in blind trusts or nonconflicting assets. They knew their exemption from the statute was not a reward for attaining high office but a pragmatic recognition that America needs its president engaged in urgent matters of state. By holding themselves to the same exacting standards as the rest of the executive branch, they sent a clear message to those serving under them.

This tradition came to an abrupt stop with President Trump. By continuing to hold onto his businesses and effectively advertising them through frequent visits to his properties, our leader creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency. As things stand, we can’t know whether policy aims or personal financial interests motivate his decisions as president. Whatever his intentions may be, the resulting uncertainty casts a pall of doubt over governmental decision-making.

This shift fundamentally changes the executive branch ethics program. I have been a student of that program since I first came to the Office of Government Ethics in 2001, appointed by Marilyn L. Glynn, then the office’s general counsel. Every past administration actively supported O.G.E.’s work and respected it for taking stands when necessary. That White House support provided the office with the leverage it needed to fulfill its mission.

I am not suggesting that it was always easy. Having served for much of my career on the front lines of the presidential nominee program, I regularly locked horns with nominees and White House lawyers in both the Bush and Obama administrations as we wrestled over our differing notions of how best to address ethical risks. Sometimes those deliberations were animated; occasionally they were heated. I am also sure that more than a few nominees felt bruised by the painful process of resolving their conflicts of interest. Even if we did not always agree, however, White House officials always understood that O.G.E.’s only goal — and, indeed, my only goal — was to protect the integrity of the government’s operations. The incidental beneficiaries of those efforts were the Bush and Obama administrations and the nominees we kept out of trouble. That’s why it is disheartening now to witness parts of the ethics program slipping away.

The Office of Government Ethics has been performing the same service it has always provided with respect to the current administration’s nominees. In fact, I have succeeded in moving President Trump’s nominees on average almost a week (six days to be exact) faster than I moved President Obama’s nominees during the last presidential transition, without compromising O.G.E.’s high standards. I am particularly proud of this accomplishment because this administration’s nominees generally hold far more complex financial interests than the last administration’s nominees, a circumstance that would normally be expected to slow O.G.E.’s work. Unfortunately, it has been harder to address other aspects of the lagging ethical culture in the current administration.

The cascading effects of the president’s departure from existing ethical norms have touched others in government. The tone from the top led one White House appointee to use her position to hawk the merchandise of the president’s daughter and another to endorse the president’s book. It led a cabinet official, whose recent wedding reportedly featured a chartered bus ride from the president’s hotel, to urge the public to see a movie he produced. The press secretary touts one of the president’s commercial enterprises as the “winter White House,” and the State Department has publicized it around the globe. A White House lawyer made the extraordinary assertion that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (‘OGE’) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.” Appearing to echo this view, the Office of Management and Budget challenged O.G.E.’s authority to collect routine ethics records. Even some presidential nominees have pushed back against ethics processes with uncommon intensity.

Affected, too, is the very official charged with responsibility for White House ethics, the counsel to the president. His office recently ginned up ten unsigned, undated waivers, many of which seem intended to have retroactive effect, raising the specter of a possible effort to paper over ethics violations. Worse, the counsel appears to be both issuer and recipient of two waivers. His deputy also beat back a press inquiry regarding the applicability of ethics rules to one of the deputy’s former clients. In addition, his office has dragged its feet on responding to O.G.E.’s questions about appointees, despite the office’s statutory duty to review their disclosures and certify their ethical compliance.

Projecting their own cynical partisanship, some defenders of this conduct dismiss any expressions of concern — or, in my case, resignation — as politically motivated.Underlying my own expressions of concern, however, is fidelity to the principle that public service is a public trust. I would not have gone looking for this particular fight; it found me. I can assure those reciting the administration’s talking points that I have not enjoyed the attention, nor have I enjoyed watching the negative effects on the ethics program. As I told the Senate during my confirmation hearing in 2012, I am a true believer in the foundational principles of the executive branch ethics program. I am also acutely aware that the program owes a debt to both parties for its past successes and that it will take both parties to restore the program to good health. To advocate for the executive branch ethics program is to advance the nonpartisan mission of an essential institution of our representative form of government.

Defenders of the status quo also seem unwilling to acknowledge the existence of a problem absent clear evidence of significant violations. This argument risks legitimizing an approach of bare minimum legal compliance. The existence or absence of identified violations is not the only measure of an ethics program — no program can detect every violation and those detected are often hard to prove. At its heart, an ethics program acts as a prevention mechanism through systems designed to reduce the risk of violations occurring. Those systems depend on adherence to ethical norms.

Recent experiences have convinced me that the existing mechanism is insufficient. The Office of Government Ethics needs greater authority to obtain information from the executive branch, including the White House. The White House and agencies lacking inspectors general need investigative oversight, which should be coordinated with O.G.E. The ethics office needs more independence, including authority to communicate directly with Congress on budgetary and legislative matters. Because we can no longer rely on presidents to comply voluntarily with ethical norms, we need new laws to address their conflicts of interest, their receipt of compensation for the use of their names while in office, nepotism and the release of tax forms. Transparency should be increased through laws mandating creation and release of documents related to divestitures, recusals, waivers and training. Disclosure requirements can be refined and the revolving door tightened. These changes would give O.G.E. the tools it needs to address the current challenges and, perhaps more importantly, reinforce for presidents the importance of setting a strong ethical tone from the top.

FED Chair says risk of financial crisis increases if Trump deregulates economy

From today’s LA Times by Jim Puzzanghera:

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen told senators Thursday that the risk of another financial crisis would increase if some Trump administration proposals to roll back regulations were enacted.

In her second straight day of Capitol Hill testimony, she walked back her statement last month that she didn’t expect another financial crisis “in our lifetimes.”

“I think we can never be confident there won’t be another financial crisis,” Yellen told members of the Senate Banking Committee.

The U.S. has “done a great deal” since the 2008 crisis to strengthen the financial system, she said. That includes forcing banks to hold more capital to cover potential losses as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul law.

“It is important that we maintain the improvements that have been put in place that mitigate the risk and the potential damage,” Yellen said.

President Trump has promised to dismantle Dodd-Frank, which Republicans have said has been too burdensome for banks.

In a report last month ordered by Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin proposed sweeping regulatory reductions, including changes that would reduce capital requirements for the biggest banks.

Yellen said she would not favor reducing those capital requirements.

Read the entire article here.

House Republicans Are Trying to Pass the Most Dangerous Wall Street Deregulation Bill Ever

From Mother Jones, June 7, 2017 by Hannah Levintova:
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From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has opposed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Obama-era financial reform law passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis.  Trump has characterized it as a “disaster” that has created obstacles for the financial sector and hurt growth. In April, he repeated his promise to gut the existing law.
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“We’re doing a major elimination of the horrendous Dodd-Frank regulations, keeping some, obviously, but getting rid of many,” Trump said in a meeting with top executives during a “Strategic and Policy CEO Discussion,” which included the leaders of major companies like Walmart and Pepsi. He added, “For the the bankers in the room, they’ll be very happy.”
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The Republican Congress shares Trump’s dislike of Dodd-Frank and this week, the House plans to vote on the Financial CHOICE Act, a Dodd-Frank overhaul bill that will, as promised, make banks and Wall Street “very happy” if it becomes law, while undoing numerous financial safeguards for regular Americans. (CHOICE is an acronym for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.”)
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The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), takes aim at some of Dodd-Frank’s main achievements: It guts rules intended to protect mortgage borrowers and military veterans, and restrict predatory lenders. It also weakens the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s ability to oversee and enforce consumer protection laws against banks around the country—upending a mix of powers that have helped the CFPB recover nearly $12 billion for 29 million individuals since opening its doors in July 2011. The bill also weakens or outright cuts a number of bank regulations enacted through Dodd-Frank to keep risky investing behavior in check in order to avoid the economic devastation of another financial crisis or taxpayer-funded bailout.

Read the entire article here.

Behind Trump’s Climate Policy Change? Oil Lobbyists and GOP Lackeys

The data is self-evident. Conservative politicians in the GOP don’t believe the science of climate change because they take the most money from oil and energy lobbyists. Notice they hedged their bets by donating significant amounts to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign?

However, Clinton would almost certainly have upheld the climate accord, since she helped pave the way for an international consensus of countries to reduce their carbon emissions during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Top 20 recipients of oil and energy money from lobbyists and industry executives. This is why Trump and the GOP do not support common sense climate legislation and oppose environmental protections for American citizens and future generations.

Economic inequality in LA ripens new concerns about future riots

From today’s LA Times by Victoria Kim and Melissa Edelhed:

Nearly 6 out of 10 Angelenos think another riot is likely in the next five years, increasing for the first time after two decades of steady decline. That’s higher than in any year except for 1997, the first year the survey was conducted, and more than a 10-point jump compared with the 2012 survey.

Young adults ages 18 to 29, who didn’t directly experience the riots, were more likely than older residents to feel another riot was a possibility, with nearly 7 out of 10 saying one was likely, compared with about half of those 45 or older. Those who were unemployed or worked part-time were also more pessimistic, as were black and Latino residents, compared with whites and Asians, the poll found.

Researchers theorized that the turnaround may be linked to several factors, including the more polarized national dialogue on race sparked by police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, as well as by the tenor of last year’s presidential election. Moreover, many parts of L.A. still suffer from some of the economic problems and lack of opportunities that fueled anger before the riots.

“Economic disparity continues to increase, and at the end of the day, that is what causes disruption,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor who has worked on the survey since its inception. “People are trying to get along and want to get along, but they understand economic tension boils over to political and social tension.”Los Angeles riots rememberedThere was a moment of silence candlelight vigil in Koreatown to commemoratethe 17th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. This year’s theme focused on teaching their history to Korean American youth, many of whom were born after the riots, during which tensions between the city’s black and Korean communities exploded.

Although the city’s unemployment rate last year was about half of what it was in 1992, the median income of Angelenos, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was around the time of the riots. Poverty rates still remain high at 22%, comparable with the years preceding the riots.

Read the entire article here.

Read coverage of LA Times Special Edition: 25th Anniversary of LA Riots here.

Bribe Cases, Secret Jared Kushner Partner, Potential Conflicts of Interest

From today’s New York Times by Jesse Drucker

It was the summer of 2012, and Jared Kushner was headed downtown.

His family’s real estate firm, the Kushner Companies, would spend about $190 million over the next few months on dozens of apartment buildings in tony Lower Manhattan neighborhoods including the East Village, the West Village and SoHo.

For much of the roughly $50 million in down payments, Mr. Kushner turned to an undisclosed overseas partner. Public records and shell companies shield the investor’s identity. But, it turns out, the money came from a member of Israel’s Steinmetz family, which built a fortune as one of the world’s leading diamond traders.

A Kushner Companies spokeswoman and several Steinmetz representatives say Raz Steinmetz, 53, was behind the deals. His uncle, and the family’s most prominent figure, is the billionaire Beny Steinmetz, who is under scrutiny by law enforcement authorities in four countries. In the United States, federal prosecutors are investigating whether representatives of his firm bribed government officials in Guinea to secure a multibillion dollar mining concession. In Israel, Mr. Steinmetz was detained in December and questioned in a bribery and money laundering investigation. In Switzerland and Guinea, prosecutors have conducted similar inquiries.

The Steinmetz partnership with Mr. Kushner underscores the mystery behind his family’s multibillion-dollar business and its potential for conflicts with his role as perhaps the second-most powerful man in the White House, behind only his father-in-law, President Trump.

Although Mr. Kushner resigned in January from his chief executive role at Kushner Companies, he remains the beneficiary of trusts that own the sprawling real estate business. The firm has taken part in roughly $7 billion in acquisitions over the last decade, many of them backed by foreign partners whose identities he will not reveal. Last month, his company announced that it had ended talks with the Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial firm linked to leading members of the ruling Communist Party. The potential agreement, first disclosed by The New York Times, had raised questions because of its favorable terms for the Kushners.

Read the entire article here.

Trump Cabinet Signals Embrace of Wall Street Elite

We told you so, America. Trump voters have elected a billionaire business man, with a myriad of conflicts of interest between his private companies and his new public position, and who has deep ties to Wall Street and the wealthy and political elite of this country. There will be no change under Trump; only more of the same status quo economics that has hurt ordinary working Americans and enriched the wealthy even more. It almost belongs in a Charles Dickens novel. So sad!

From The New York Times, December 1, 2016. Read the full story here.

In a campaign commercial that ran just before the election, Donald J. Trump’s voice boomed over a series of Wall Street images. He described “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations.”

The New York Stock Exchange, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros and the chief executive of the investment bank Goldman Sachs flashed across the screen.

Now Mr. Trump has named a former Goldman executive and co-investor with Mr. Soros to spearhead his economic policy.

With Wednesday’s nomination of Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman trader turned hedge fund manager and Hollywood financier, to be Treasury secretary, a new economic leadership is taking shape in Washington.

That two investors — Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Ross — will occupy two major economic positions in the new administration is the most powerful signal yet that Mr. Trump plans to emphasize policies friendly to Wall Street, like tax cuts and a relaxation of regulation, in the early days of his administration.

While that approach has been cheered by investors (the stocks of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have been on a tear since the election), it stands in stark contrast to the populist campaign that Mr. Trump ran and the support he received from working-class voters across the country.

No Accounting Skills? No Moral Reckoning

From NYT’s “The Great Divide” Blog by Jacob Soll:

“A population well-versed in double-entry accounting will not immediately solve our complex financial problems, but it would allow average citizens to understand the nuts and bolts of finance: balance sheets, mortgage interest, depreciation and long-term risk. It would also give them a clearer sense of what financial accountability really means and of how to ask for and assess audits. The explosion of data-driven journalism should also include a subset of reporters with training in accounting so that they can do a better job of explaining its central role in our economy and financial crises.

Without a society trained in accountability, one thing is certain: There will be more reckonings to come.”

Read the entire article here.

Outrage Over Wall Street Pay, but Shrugs for Silicon Valley?

From the New York Times Blog “DealBook” by Steven Davidoff:

Big paydays on Wall Street often come under laserlike scrutiny, while Silicon Valley gets a pass on its own compensation excesses. Why the double standard?

Take Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive and current chairman of Google. Google’s compensation committee last month awarded Mr. Schmidt $100 million in restricted stock plus $6 million in cash. The stock vests in four years and comes on the heels of a $100 million award made in 2011.

It’s unclear why Google felt the need to award Mr. Schmidt this amount.

When asked for comment, a representative of Google directed me to the regulatory filing Google made disclosing Mr. Schmidt’s compensation award. The filing states the award was paid “in recognition of his contributions to Google’s performance in fiscal year 2013.” How about that for detail?

Mr. Schmidt already owns shares worth billions of dollars in Google, and has a net worth of more than $8 billion, according to Forbes. So the latest award amount is just a few ducats to him.

As chairman, Mr. Schmidt does make a substantial contribution to Google, including helping the company negotiate a settlement with the European Union in an antitrust case. But his pay is extraordinarily high for a chairman. The typical director at a Standard & Poor’s 500 company was paid $251,000 in 2012, according to Bloomberg News. Mr. Schmidt is above that range by over $100 million.

Still, the pay award was greeted with few questions and apparently no criticism from Google’s shareholders or others. Compare this with the continued outcry over Wall Street executive pay.

The latest was the criticism of Jamie Dimon’s pay for 2013, given the many regulatory travails of his bank, JPMorgan Chase. The bank’s board awarded Mr. Dimon $20 million in pay for 2013, $18.5 million of which was in restricted stock that vests over three years.

In doing so, the JPMorgan board stated that the award was justified because of JPMorgan’s “sustained long-term performance; gains in market share and customer satisfaction; and the regulatory issues the company has faced and the steps the company has taken to resolve those issues.”

While JPMorgan may be hogging the regulatory limelight at the moment, other Wall Street banks have faced that glare and have been questioned about their chief executives’ compensation. Total pay for Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, no stranger to regulatory scrutiny, has not yet been disclosed, but he was recently awarded $14 million in stock. Once his cash bonus is announced, Mr. Blankfein will probably be paid an amount similar to Mr. Dimon’s.

Like JPMorgan’s board, Goldman’s board has sought to justify such pay and is criticized just the same.

This double standard for finance and technology doesn’t make sense.

Read the entire article here.

Occupy SEC played significant role in curbing risky banking and trading

From the “Economix” Blog of the New York Times by Simon Johnson:

There is a tendency in recent American political discourse to use the term “populism” as a form of putdown. The implication is that that while populists may have some legitimate grievances, they are rebelling in a disorganized and ill-informed way. As President Obama implied in early 2009, the populists have pitchforks, while his administration represented the responsible mainstream.

This is an inaccurate portrayal of populism in America, both historically and today. Occupy Wall Street is a perfect example. To be sure, part of that 2011 movement was purely about expressing frustration – justified frustration – at how very powerful people in the finance sector had behaved and continue to behave. But the movement also led to an important offshoot or related development,Occupy the S.E.C., which focused on the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This group wrote a brilliant commentary on the originally proposed Volcker Rule, which is designed to limit proprietary trading and other forms of excessive risk-taking at very large banks. Their comments, along with the work of others who wanted more effective reform, were helpful in pushing officials toward the final Volcker Rule, which was just unveiled.

At a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services on Wednesday, at which I testified, some technical issues were raised by representatives of big banks and parts of the securities industry, but the broad outlines of the Volcker Rule are no longer resisted. When asked, none of the witnesses suggested that the Volcker Rule should be repealed. This is a big victory for Occupy the S.E.C. and all its allies.

Read the entire article here.