Government Ethics With a Sense of Humor

Government ethics with a sense of humor will seem like a misprint to some readers. But one government official has gone to a lot of effort to catalog “ethical lapses” of some federal employees with an eye toward illustrating how one can ruin a career, and perhaps go to prison, by failing to follow the dictates of ethical standards of conduct.

Some federal employees who have been around for awhile will recall that government ethics used to be the domain of one man located somewhere within the Office of Personnel Management.

There are no verifiable statistics on whether Uncle Sam’s civilian army is more “ethical” than it used to be, but what used to be a one man show is now an entire industry. There is a whole agency devoted to monitoring, regulating or otherwise dictating what is ethical for federal employees and what is not. Moreover, there are now agency ethics officials within each agency who spend at least some of their time making similar determinations on what is ethical and what isn’t for people who used to be called “civil servants.”

Stephen Epstein is the director of the Pentagon’s Standards of Conduct Office. That sounds more important than “ethics officer” but it apparently means something similar within the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. He has done something unusual. He was recently the subject of a front page article in the Wall Street Journal and he has not done anything wrong, taken any bribes, and is not the subject of an investigation by a special counsel hoping to make a name for himself by castigating or prosecuting a politician.

With a small army of people now roaming the offices of government buildings it isn’t too surprising that one man has made a name for himself by approaching the subject with irreverance and a sense of humor. For those who may have had contact with some agency ethics officials, an irreverant ethics official or a humorous ethics official may seem like an oxymoron. Some officials are skilled as presenting themselves with a cloak of self-righteous imperialism.

Epstein has written the “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.” He publishes his missive on the Internet. From his lofty perch within the bureaucracy, he has access to numerous cases of what a master of understatement would call “ethical failure.”

Most federal employees take their jobs and dedication to duty seriously and reading this catalogue of ethical lapses (some of which are sufficiently serious to lead to time for the errant fed to spend time in a federal prison) will make many long-time federal civil servants cringe when the read what some have done when given access to the money and power of the federal government.

As might be expected from a senior federal official, his catalogue is organized and reflects a mindset of bureaucratic efficiency. His encyclopedia has hundreds of anecdotes organized alphatetically and by type ranging from “Abuse of Position” to “Travel Violations.”

Some of these “ethical lapses” have been reported by FedSmith when the incident was reported in a court case or other third-party opinion. Some of the incidents are eye-catching. For example, many parents have been to a “show and tell” session at an elementary school. Perhaps your young scholar would like to explain to classmates what dad does for a living? One federal employee may have thought this was an opportunity to impress the class. But a Department of Homeland Security border officer was fired for misuing government property after he flew a multi-million dollar DHS helicopter to his daughter’s elementary school and landed it on school property.

If you should be tempted to do something similar, Mr. Epstein’s encyclopedia notes that “While the employee’s immediate supervisor told him he could use the helicopter, the employee’s actions were not excused because employees are expected to use their own judgment and should not rely solely on the judgment of their superiors when it comes to ethical conduct.”

And there are a number of cases of federal employees who decided to supplement their federal salaries with a few extra dollars on the side. For example, an employee of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “gave her spouse-like partner information about the minimum acceptable bid required to purchase a HUD-owned property.” The information was not publicly available and gave a bidder a big advantage in the bidding process. After the employee’s partner won the bid, the property was transferred to the HUD employee for $1.00–despite an agency regulations that does not allow agency employees to bid on HUD property for sale. The employee was fired.

Under the general heading of “Bribery”, the encyclopedia details the efforts of an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs was caught demanding and receiving kickbacks in return for agency contracts. The errant employee received $115,000 in kickbacks, but the scam ended up costing the government much more—between $400,000 and $1 million. The former fed ended up with a 46-month sentence for various offenses.

The vignettes in the catalog of ethical problems don’t usually include names. Epstein told the Journal that he writes the document to illustrate the importance of ethics in government by publicizing what people have done wrong. “We try to write the entries with; a sense of humor, but the message is clear that this behavior is ruinous.”

You may find some of the entries to be funny; you may find some that will enrage you; perhaps there are some that will be useful in avoiding problems in your agency. You can check out the entire document here.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47