My job as an attorney is to keep my clients out of trouble. I know what can open them up to liability, and I understand what can help mitigate those liabilities. Ethics investigations are not uncommon here in Washington, and I think today’s news surrounding Kellyanne Conway can serve as a reminder to all federal employees that ethics laws are taken seriously. Furthermore, the resultant actions by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform highlights the possible consequences of such violations: administrative and/or criminal investigation.
As background, this morning during an appearance on Fox & Friends Ms. Conway discussed Nordstrom’s decision to drop products supplied by Ivanka Trump’s business and said, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you . . . It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it. I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.” This statement was a clear violation of 5 C.F.R. section 2635.702(c) (2016) which states, “[A]n employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that his agency or the Government sanctions or endorses his personal activities or those of another.”
What was surprising to many attorneys is how blatant of a violation this was. What was concerning to me, as a defense attorney and former federal criminal investigator, is that her words can be construed to have conveyed an “intent.” This is important should this be investigated as a criminal matter (which I think is highly unlikely in this instance).
So, what is the key take-away from all of this? It’s simple: it is quite easy to get yourself into an ethical dilemma if you’re not careful. Accordingly, when in doubt review your ethics guides and visit the Office of Government Ethics website here so that you can understand the Standards of Conduct and applicable laws and regulations that govern you as a federal employee. If in doubt, contact an ethics attorney. The consequences of making a mistake can be significant.