A sample review of the 334 ethics waivers HHS granted to its employees in the first year of the Obama administration found most did not follow federal documentation rules—specifically, ethics guidelines issued in the waning days of the Bush administration.
Bush: And before I go, here are some ethics rules
The HHS inspector general's review, issued today, found 56% of the 50 HHS conflict-of-interest waivers (PDF) were not documented as recommended by government-wide federal ethics regulations and by instructions issued Jan. 16, 2009 from then-HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt.
The documentation omissions included a lack of detail on which specific employee interests posed conflicts; which particular matters employees were permitted to participate in; and in which matters the employee was prohibited from participating, because of the conflict.
The waivers' importance, noted the inspector general's report, stems from their ability to “permit the employees to act in an official government capacity in which they would otherwise be prohibited.” But when recommended details in those waivers are missing, HHS employees can misunderstand their conflicts of interest and inadvertently violate the criminal conflict-of-interest statute. Additionally, such lack of documentation can lead the public to question the integrity of the employees' services to the government, noted the report.
In a written response, the HHS general counsel's office rejected the inspector general's findings of documentation problems, citing the “wide latitude” that federal ethics rules provide for waiver content.
Such leeway in conflict-of-interest documentation may hold for most of the federal government under general federal ethics rules, but Leavitt's orders—issued four days before Obama's inauguration—put HHS employees under specific conflict documentation requirements, the inspector general's staff concluded.
“[F]or waivers to be documented consistently with the secretary's January 2009 instructions, some section of the waivers should contain clear language so that employees and other stakeholders (e.g., employees' supervisors, the public, the inspector general) can understand the waivers and so that employees may be held accountable for complying with them,” the inspector general's report said.
You can follow Rich Daly on Twitter @MHRDaly.
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