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In scolding letter, ethics chief tells agency heads to ask themselves ‘Should I do it?’ not ‘Can I do it?’

(Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse Via Getty Images)

The recently appointed federal ethics chief has called on Cabinet secretaries and other government leaders to double down on their commitment to ethical conduct, to ensure their actions are “motivated by the public good and not by personal interests.”

The two-page letter to agency heads from David J. Apol, acting director and general counsel for the Office of Government Ethics, comes as several members of President Trump’s Cabinet are embroiled in controversy over their use of military and private airplanes to travel for official business.

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Inspectors general are investigating the use of noncommercial planes by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — who was forced to resign this month over at least $500,000 he racked up in taxpayer-funded charter flights — as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has also come under scrutiny for taking a taxpayer-funded, 10-day trip to Europe over the summer with his wife and two top aides.

In his Oct. 5 memo, Apol called it “essential to the success of our republic that citizens can trust that your decisions and decisions made by your agency are motivated by the public good and not by personal interests.” The letter amounted to the most public admonishment of Trump administration officials to date by Apol, whose predecessor, Walter M. Shaub Jr., clashed frequently with the White House.

While not addressing the Cabinet travel directly, Apol indicated he was disappointed by recent actions of government officials.

“I am deeply concerned that the actions of some in Government leadership have harmed perceptions about the importance of ethics and what conduct is, and is not, permissible,” he wrote.

[Power struggle intensifies between White House and ethics office]

Through a spokesman, Apol declined to comment on the impetus for his letter.

In the memo, he urged government leaders to set a good example for their employees and laid out a quick course in Ethics 101, urging them to demonstrate “personal ethical behavior by modeling a “Should I do it?” mentality (versus a “Can I do it?” mentality).”

The federal ethics office, which ensures compliance with ethics rules, has had a rocky relationship with the Trump administration. Apol was appointed by the White House last July to succeed Shaub, who called on Trump before he was inaugurated to liquidate his personal holdings to avoid conflicts — advice the president-elect did not take. Shaub, an Obama administration appointee, stepped down before his term expired.

Apol’s appointment to replace him was viewed with concern by some government watchdog groups, who worried whether he would take a more permissive approach.

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Apol’s letter came as the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a review of ethics compliance during the Trump transition that further illuminated tensions between the administration and OGE.

GAO auditors found the transition team failed to consult with ethics office personnel or heed its advice, according to the report. Auditors examining the transition reported their inquiries about compliance with ethics rules were rebuffed by the White House Counsel’s Office, the Office of the Vice President and the Trump-Pence transition team, which declined to fully cooperate with their review, the report said.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration’s lack of response to GAO was remarkable. “I have never seen anything like this,” said Ornstein, who has written about the history of ethics enforcement and White House-congressional relations. “This is definitely an in-your-face violation of norms.”

[Federal ethics chief blasts Trump plan to break from businesses, calling it ‘meaningless’]

Congressional Democrats who requested the report have proposed legislation to compel more cooperation in the future between the White House and ethics officials.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of those requesting the report, said the GAO’s findings merit attention and action. “Presidential transitions should focus on the needs of the American people — not special interests,” she said Tuesday in a statement, saying she would work “to address ethical shortcomings of presidential transitions revealed by this investigation.”