The Raymond Jefferson Mystery: Isn’t There Ethics Training for Obama Administration Officials?


Raymond Jefferson's government ethics tool box

Based on the sorry Raymond Jefferson scandal, I would assume that the answer to that question is: “What’s ethics training?” Sure, there are reams and reams of government ethics regulations; I’ve read a lot of them. Apparently there is no one making sure that high-ranking officials have read them or understand them, however.

Jefferson, the Assistant Secretary of the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service appointed by President Obama to oversee a job-training program for veterans, has resigned following an inspector general’s finding that he violated federal procurement rules and ethics principles by fast-tracking lucrative consulting contracts to his friends. Jefferson, says the report from the Labor Department’s inspector general, engaged in “a pattern of conduct . . . which reflects a consistent disregard of federal procurement regulations, federal ethics rules and the proper stewardship of appropriated dollars.”

He was a rising star, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger (disabled too, having lost the fingers on his left hand in a training accident) who had an MBA from Harvard Business School. (Oh-oh! Ethics alarm!) He  was nominated by Obama in April 2009 to head the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) program, which helps veterans prepare for the civilian job market. Jefferson should have been good at it, too, if anyone had bothered to make sure he understood the critical ethical concepts of conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety.

Nobody did, however. Thus Jefferson and his deputy, John McWilliam, abused their authority by coercing VETS staff into awarding contracts to consultant Stewart Liff, a friend and former colleague of Jefferson’s. Liff was paid up to $275 an hour and received approximately $700,000 over a 16-month period for services that could have and should have been secured at a much lower cost through open competition, according to the inspector general’s report. Among the vital matters Liff was consulted on:  the proper color scheme for offices. I mean, this guy was essential.

Jefferson told investigators, tipped off by a whistle-blower, that he had not received any training in federal government contracting or procurement. That probably means that he was winging it on ethics, too. He said he told his deputies “to move quickly, and also legally, ethically and properly”  to hire Liff.  Uh, but they couldn’t hire Liff ethically, see, because to hire the boss’s crony without competition is per se unethical. Conflict of interest. Appearance of impropriety. It’s right there in the government employee ethics code! Never mind, forget I mentioned it.

Jefferson’s deputy, John McWilliam, was also a prize. He told investigators that he was concerned about the perception that they were “paying a lot of money for a management consultant” but said he didn’t think VETS “did anything illegal.” How about wildly, obviously, irresponsible, unfair, and unethical, John? But why should we expect you to know that?

Jefferson swears Liff, who was a consultant at the same firm as Jefferson before Obama appointed him, isn’t really a friend.  Now Mark Tribus was Jefferson’s friend.  Jefferson tried to circumvent procedures to get VETS to award Tribus, his former West Point classmate and friend for 25 years, a sole-source contract.
Conflict of interest. Appearance of impropriety. Still nothing, Raymond?

Now that Jefferson has resigned, the Labor Department has placed all contracting activity by VETS under special oversight. “We are reviewing the report to determine appropriate fixes and necessary corrective actions to ensure that a situation like this does not happen again,” an official told the Washington Post.
I hope one of those fixes is to make sure the next appointee understands basic ethical principles like conflicts of interest and appearance of impropriety. They should know by now that no one learns about those at Harvard Business School.

12 thoughts on “The Raymond Jefferson Mystery: Isn’t There Ethics Training for Obama Administration Officials?

  1. Without knowing more details, I’d say there’s a good chance that the sole-source contracts were actually illegal, too.


  2. Maybe he should have been required to study for a year as a Harvard Ethics Fellow… then again, maybe not.

    I’m sorry, I know it was a cheap shot. However, If an administration is going to insist on hiring all these people from Harvard, you should expect these things to happen. Inbreeding is a bad thing genetically and ideologically.

  3. Jack–I’m pretty sure you got a very one-sided version. I read the report (54 pages) and I haven’t found a hint that Liff and Jefferson were friends. The “color scheme reference is a smear: liff invented a management approach that he calls “visual management,” which involves making the work environment reinforce the goals and vision of the organization.

    If i were an agency head i’d immediately seek out Liff’s help, just as Jefferson did. It appears to me that Jefferson’s only sin was to move faster than some bureaucratic nay-sayers wanted to; and that Liff committed no sin at all.

    • I also read the report. I think a presumption that colleagues from the same company are “friends” in some sense is reasonable. The problem is that Liff is a high priced consultant who wasn’t required to bid against competitors. Nobody questions that he is competent. Appearance of impropriety doesn’t require actual impropriety, as you well know.

  4. The problem is that IGs take the animus of a disgruntled employee and use it to nail the scalp of an innocent (Liff, and maybe others) to the trophy wall. Liff has done nothing even close to wrong. Where does he go to get his reputation back?

  5. My God! I worked for the Feds in procurement and these practices are unethical at best. I don’t care how the apple is sliced, it is still eaten.

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