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Conflicts of Interest between the Clinton Foundation and Access to the Clinton State Department

Why Government Employees Should Take a Required Course in Ethics

What should we make of the apparent ties between the Clinton Global Initiative (Clinton Foundation) and the Clinton State Department? Some of the reports I've seen allege over 50% of the people that met with Clinton donated to the Foundation. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the Crown Prince of Bahrain established a scholarship program with the Clinton Foundation in 2005, and by 2010 he had contributed $32 million. Are we to believe these contributions did not come with the expectation of having special access to the highest offices in the U.S. government?

The fact is from an ethical perspective it doesn't matter if the Crown Prince or others making similar contributions did so to gain favored treatment. In ethics, perception becomes reality and that is why many claim there was a 'play to pay' mentality while Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State.

Some claim the Foundation does good works and any connections between it and the State Department while Hillary was Secretary of State pale in comparison to the benefits derived by many who received Foundation funds. The problem is in ethics it is wrong to assume the ends justify the means. How you get to your goal is just as important as getting there. Otherwise, some people would use and abuse others to achieve their goals and be justified in doing so.

What I find ironic about the discussion is two weeks ago it was reported that the State Department could find no evidence that some of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers completed their mandatory ethics training. The Republican National Committee had sued to get a look at the records for Secretary Clinton and nine of her top staffers, including many who now work on her presidential campaign. Of those, only three had records showing they completed the training.

The reaction of Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s closest advisers, speaks volumes of the way some in government view the importance of ethics training. The State Department reminded her of her obligation in early 2013, just before she left the department along with Clinton, and she seemed confused saying she thought filing a financial disclosure form was enough. When told ethics training was separate and still undone, she said she’d get to it.

The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch are the final regulations issued by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics on July 1, 2011. The ethical commitment of those in government expected under the standards is critical to serving the public interest. This means taking the required training seriously and being clear on just what are the ethical obligations of those who function in the government environment. Ethics training helps to operationalize expected standards of behavior for all to follow and creates a level playing field with respect to what is expected of government employees and what are possible sanctions for violating the standards.

A critical element of ethical behavior in government is to avoid any conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest exists when a relationship between the government employee and an outside party brings into question whether that employee can act in an unbiased manner if and when questions arise about that party. For those in Congress the best thing to do is to recuse oneself from any deliberations and voting on matters pertaining to that party. But, what about other government employees. What is the expected standard of behavior? 

The Ethical Standards prohibit any employee from “participating in an official capacity in any particular matter in which, to his or her knowledge, he or any person whose interests are imputed to him has a financial interest, if the particular matter will have a direct and predictable effect on that interest.” One could say that Secretary Clinton’s participation in the activities of the Clinton Foundation while she was the Secretary of State conflicted with her role as the Secretary. In particular, Clinton may have given preferential treatment to individuals and foreign governments in dealings with the U.S. government and related activities.

The point here is a conflict of interest exists simply by the appearance of a possible conflict. An actual conflict may or may not exist. It doesn’t matter from an ethical perspective. Even the mere impression that a conflict may exist because of the relationship is sufficient to create the conflict. The Ethical Standards are also designed to ensure that government employees take appropriate steps to avoid an appearance of loss of impartiality in the performance of official duties.

It seems to me the ethical lessons have not been learned by Secretary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. I believe this because Bill Clinton has announced that the Clinton Foundation will stop accepting foreign and corporate donations if Hillary wins in November. The former President also said that he will stop giving paid speeches between now and Election Day, and that he would step down from the foundation’s board if his wife prevails in the general election. Notice that former President Clinton carefully parsed his words by promising to stop giving speeches only up to Election Day.

This whole matter plays into the hands of critics who charge that the Clinton’s have two sets of standards of behavior – one for them and one for the rest of the people. Why else would they now take an “ethical stand” on speeches and donations and not while Secretary Clinton was in office? Wouldn’t the conflict of interests have existed during that time as well?

An ethical person doesn’t change his or her behavior after the fact because it has been criticized by many others. I believe Hillary Clinton is a reactive candidate rather than a proactive one and this is a problem when dealing with ethical issues. An ethical candidate and, indeed, any government employee, can spot the ethical issues before making decisions and takes the appropriate action from an ethical perspective to avoid even the appearance that one’s judgment might be tainted by certain relationships with outside parties.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 25, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at