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Why It's Been A Dismal Year For Ethics In Washington

Dec 25, 2018
Originally published on December 25, 2018 7:56 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

It's been a bad year for ethics in Washington. That's true even when you set aside the Russia mess. NPR's Peter Overby has the story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Let's start with the president's Cabinet. Trump pushed out three of his own appointees over ethics concerns - David Shulkin at Veterans Affairs, Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency and Ryan Zinke at Interior. Shulkin ran into trouble last winter. Lawmakers faulted him for vacationing on the government's tab in between two important conferences. He was apologetic.

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DAVID SHULKIN: I do recognize the optics of this are not good. I accept responsibility for that.

OVERBY: To which Colorado Republican Congressman Mike Coffman snapped back.

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MIKE COFFMAN: It's not the optics that are not good. It's the facts that are not good.

OVERBY: Another factor was in play here. Shulkin resisted as the administration pushed to privatize some veterans services, so he was gone. To succeed him, Trump nominated his personal physician, Navy Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson. He withdrew when senators started questioning his professional behavior. Trump ushered Jackson out the door.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Admiral Jackson - Dr. Jackson is a wonderful man. I said to him, what do you need it for?

OVERBY: Over at the EPA, Scott Pruitt set off more than a dozen ethics investigations - flying first class, misusing his security detail, trying to buy a used mattress from Trump's hotel near the White House. Pruitt told Ed Henry of Fox News that he was attacked because he was so effective.

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SCOTT PRUITT: Worldviews clash. Individuals don't like it, particularly the environmental left. Those groups had their reign at this office, in this agency before we arrived.

ED HENRY: So last question...

PRUITT: That's draining the swamp.

OVERBY: With Pruitt gone, the most investigated Cabinet member was Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He resigned after the midterm elections as House Democrats won the power to start investigating the administration. Law professor Kathleen Clark studies ethics in government at Washington University in St. Louis. She said this list of problematic appointees, along with the administration's other ethical problems, led to a clear conclusion.

KATHLEEN CLARK: The tone from the top of the administration is quite clear and its contempt for ethics standards.

OVERBY: On Capitol Hill, the Republican-majority Congress did little this year to probe ethics lapses in the administration. But at the same time, federal prosecutors charged two Republican congressmen with crimes. Duncan Hunter Jr. of San Diego was indicted in August along with his wife. The indictment says the couple's lifestyle outstripped his congressional salary. The Hunters allegedly used campaign money for everything from dental work to a European vacation and private school for their children. Hunter laid it all on his wife. He told Fox News she always handled the finances.

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DUNCAN HUNTER: Whatever she did, that'll be looked at, too, I'm sure. But I didn't do it.

OVERBY: The other accused Congressman is Chris Collins from far western New York State. He's charged with using and sharing inside information from a pharmaceutical developer where he was the largest investor, allegations he quickly denied.

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CHRIS COLLINS: The charges that have been levied against me are meritless, and I will mount a vigorous defense in court to clear my name.

OVERBY: Collins and Hunter both won re-election in their staunchly Republican districts. Clark, the government ethics professor, said the voters' decisions highlight a problem.

CLARK: The weakness of elections as a mode of accountability.

OVERBY: House Democrats say they have plans to deliver more ethics accountability in the Trump administration and in the House itself when they take charge next month.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.