Senator Warren’s Proposed Anticorruption Agency Should Be Headed By a Multi-Member Commission, Not a Single Director

Last August, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a sweeping bill that, if enacted, would substantially reform the current ethics systems in place in the U.S. government. The bill includes a broad range of substantive reforms, including stricter conflict of interest rules, much stronger lobbying restrictions (such as a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress, Presidents, and agency heads), and new judicial ethics rules. But in addition to these and other changes to substantive law, the bill is striking in its call for a quite drastic institutional change: the creation and empowerment of a single anticorruption agency called the U.S. Office of Public Integrity. The proposed Office would not only consolidate the functions of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and the agency Inspectors General under one roof, but would also have broad investigative authority (including subpoena power), as well as the ability to impose civil and administrative penalties, and to refer criminal violations to the Department of Justice. Moreover, the Office of Public Integrity would have the responsibilities to ensure agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), create and maintain a central FOIA database, and maintain a separate online database containing financial disclosures, lobbyist registrations, lobbyist disclosures of meetings and materials, and all ethics records (including recusals and waivers). A division within the Office of Public Integrity, known as the Office of the Public Advocate, would represent the “public interest” in executive branch rulemaking.

In addition to its broad powers, the proposed Office of Public Integrity is notable for its distinctive leadership structure. The bill proposes that the office be headed by a single Director, appointed for a renewable five-year term. The Director would have “for-cause” removal protection, meaning that the President could only remove the Director for good cause, defined as “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” The Office would therefore be an “independent agency,” which is a term typically (at least in the U.S.) referring to an agency whose leaders have this sort of for-cause removal protection. But most U.S. independent agencies are headed by a multi-member commission, rather than a single director. (This is true, for example, for the National Labor Relations Board and the Federal Communications Commission.) The commissioners at such agencies typically serve staggered terms and make decisions by majority vote. It’s rare for an independent agency in the U.S. federal government to be headed by a single director rather than by a commission. (The most notable exception is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—perhaps not coincidentally an agency based on a proposal by Senator Warren.)

While there is much to be said in favor of Senator Warren’s proposed Office of Public Integrity, this leadership structure is a mistake. While it makes sense for an agency devoted to enforcing ethics rules and fighting corruption to be independent from the President, it would be better for such an agency to be governed by a multi-member commission rather than a single director.

There are three reasons for this:

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Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

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Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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State-Level Responses to Trump’s Corrupt Mix of Business and Politics: Some Preliminary Proposals

In my last post, I suggested that legal responses to concerns about corruption in the Trump Administration—in particular, concerns about Trump’s use of the presidency to enrich his family—might be more successful at the state level than at the federal level, and might be more viable if they do not attempt to target Trump directly, but rather deploy state law tools to limit the Trump family’s ability to leverage Trump’s position for commercial gain. My last post noted two proposals for lines of legal attack that could be initiated by state attorneys general (or possibly by private parties) under existing bodies of state law: state unfair competition laws (some of which are framed very broadly) and state corporate laws (which give states considerable power to regulate corporations, and possibly limited liability companies (LLCs), operating pursuant to state charters).

These proposals are attractive because they do not require any changes in existing laws. At the same time, and for that same reason, the laws in question are not necessarily well-tailored to the specific and unprecedented corruption/conflict-of-interest problems at issue in the Trump Administration. For that reason, it might be worth exploring potential changes to state law that would give state enforcement agencies, and possibly private litigants, more effective tools to rein in some of the most egregious sorts of potential conflicts, and thereby to enforce a more rigid separation between the Trump Administration and the Trump family’s business interests. Even though Republicans control the large majority of state governments, there are several states where Democrats and sympathetic Republicans might well have enough clout to pass such legislation—including, perhaps most importantly, California, New York, and Delaware. (Many other states have popular ballot initiative processes that might enable the passage of legislation even over the objections of Republican-controlled state legislatures.)

What might such state-level legislative reforms look like? This is a topic I hope to explore in a series of future posts, but here let me throw out a few relatively simple preliminary ideas: Continue reading