Magazine article Insight on the News

Promised New Code of Ethics Has No Teeth

Magazine article Insight on the News

Promised New Code of Ethics Has No Teeth

Article excerpt

The oracle at Little Rock spoke, decreeing that ethics will prevail in the Clinton administration. He then handed down on yellow legal pads the code of ethics of the Clinton transition team, with a similar code promised for the new administration.

Public Citizen and Common Cause, groups long critical of government ethics in general and Republican ethics in particular, praised the code. The press devoured it with the appetite of blind sows scrounging for acorns.

The message is that the Clinton administration is breaking with the past - meaning the Bush administration. And President Bush can't complain about being cast as the bad guy in Clinton's morality play. Bush began his presidency by appointing a commission to create an ethics code for federal employees. Bush, too, sent a message that he was breaking with the past - meaning the Reagan administration.

A reading of the Clinton code, however, reveals it as the toothless piece of lawyering it is undoubtedly intended to be.

The first provision bars members of the Clinton transition team from lobbying the federal government in their specific areas of transition service for six months, with top aides barred from federal lobbying altogether.

This provision has more loopholes than an automobile advertisement. Six months is not harsh penance for those who wish to trade on their relationship with the Clinton administration. And transition team members need only avoid lobbying in the specific area of their transition duties. How specific is specific - and who decides? The permanently barred senior advisers, meantime, plan to be employed running the country for at least the next four years.

And then there is the Hillary loophole.

Suppose the spouse of a transition team member is part of a law firm engaged in lobbying. The spouse does not lobby directly in the specific area of the transition team member's service. The spouse assigns this work to a partner, but all members of the firm profit through the firm's pay scheme and bonuses.

This egregious conflict of interest is the situation that prevailed between Gov. Clinton's Arkansas administration and Mrs. Clinton's law firm. If the new Clinton code of ethics prohibits such conflicts, the president-elect - as governor - has already flouted the code for family financial gain. If it doesn't prohibit them, this is another massive loophole.

If you're beginning to think you'd need to be a lawyer to figure out the Clinton code of ethics - or to profit from it - you're right.

The second provision bars transition team members from serving in any role in which they, their family members or their clients have a financial stake. …

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