Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/30/2017: The Price Is Wrong, Traveling Men The Trump Cabinet,And The Return Of “Will & Grace”

Good Morning!

1 Under pressure from President Trump, who shouldn’t have appointed him in the first place, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned  yesterday. He, along with other Trump officials, was under Congressional scrutiny for using expensive charter and military flights unnecessarily, costing taxpayers at a time when the administration is supposedly watching the budget. Under Federal Travel Regulations, officials are told to take the “most expeditious” means of transportation which “by no means should include personal use,” Chairman Trey Gowdy and ranking member Elijah Cummings had written to  letter to Price, 23 other agency heads, and the White House. Price has spent more than $400,000 on taxpayer-funded private jet travel since May.

Price’s abuses included a $17,760 round trip on a charter jet to Nashville, where the HHS Secretary stayed less than six hours, including lunch with his son. The day before he resigned and a day after the President publicly expressed displeasure over the travel abuses, Price had apologized. “Today, I will write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” Price said in a statement, adding that he will no longer take private planes while serving as Secretary. “No exceptions.” This was deceit, however. The repayment was just $51,887.31, a fraction of the true cost to the government. That was, as Price said, the cost of  the secretary’s “seats” if had flown commercial.

Price is not the only Trump official whose travel practices and expenditures raise at least the appearance of impropriety, but if one had to be the symbolic whipping boy, Price was a great choice. He was also my choice back in January for “Trump Cabinet Appointee Most Likely To Make Money Off Of His Position.” In a post expressing disgust at Price’s appointment, I wrote,

“Last year, Price purchased shares in Zimmer Biomet, a medical device manufacturer right before he introduced  legislation that would have directly benefited the company. Price bought between $1,001 to $15,000 worth of shares in the company last March, and then, less than a week after the transaction,  introduced the HIP Act…to delay until 2018 a regulation that industry analysts believed  would significantly hurt Zimmer Biomet, one of two companies most affected by a regulation that limits payments for joint implant procedures. Not only did Price have a financial stake in the regulation he tried to stall,but after Price introduced  his bill, Zimmer Biomet’s political action committee donated to the Georgia congressman’s reelection campaign.”

2. Losing one arrogant, travel-abusing high official may not be enough. It’s an interesting problem: is it fair to make one miscreant the focus of abuses that involve many? No; it’s also not practical, and therefore not responsible, to behead a significant portion of the Executive Branch because oversight was lax and an unethical culture had been allowed to take hold. I think Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin would be an excellent and deserving candidate to join Price as metaphorical head on a pike.

Shulkin took a 10-day trip to Europe this past July, for meetings with Danish and British officials about veterans’ health issues. He treated much of the trip as a vacation, taking in a Wimbledon championship tennis match, touring Westminster Abbey and taking a cruise on the Thames with his wife, whose expenses were also paid for by you and me. The federal government paid for the commercial flights for Shulkin and his wife, and provided a per-diem reimbursement for their meals and other expenses. How did Mrs. Shulkin rank reimbursements and taxpayer-funded airfare? A VA spokesman explained that she was traveling on “approved invitational orders” and had “temporary duty” travel expenses.

In other words: “Huminahuminahumina…” Continue reading

Ethics Observations On The GOP New Hampshire Debate

Rubio meltdown

Two ethics controversies occurred before the ABC debate (transcript here) even began.

  • DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz really is a shameless and audacious hack. Does anyone seriously defend her? After being justly criticized in the news media for unabashedly hiding the Democratic candidates debates, staging them on weekends and against football games to smooth the road for Hillary, she actually had the epic gall to accuse the GOP of doing the same thing in a tweet yesterday, which read:

“Hmmm, wondering why @GOP trying to hide their #GOPdebate on the Saturday of #SuperBowl weekend no less?!”

Is she that lacking in self-awareness? Was she mocking herself? Is she an idiot? After she was blasted left and right for the tweet, she either revealed her real objective or concocted a face-saving retort:

“.@TheDemocrats debates set viewer records. Both parties’ broadcast network debates on wknds. Replies to SuperBowl #GOPdebate make my point,”

Whether this was her original intent of a U-Turn, it was also her trademark, a ridiculously transparent lie. “TheDemocrats debates set viewer records” is deceit: all the debates by both parties have exceeded previous viewer levels, but the Republican debates have significantly out-drawn the Democrats. There is no doubt that the Democrats would have drawn more had they avoided weekends like Republicans did, and that the fact that they did not was entirely intentional.

Why do Democrats tolerate a sleaze like Wasserman Schultz? It is natural to judge a party by its leadership, and she is neither bright, nor honest, nor effective,  nor appealing.

The other issue was the unfairness of leaving Carly Fiorina out of the debate. I don’t pretend to understand the formula used to demote the candidates, but since all of the other potential debaters–Gilmore, Graham, Huckabee, Santorum, Paul—had dropped out, either Fiorina should have been given a chance to debate herself for two hours, which would have been fun, or be in the main debate. Her New Hampshire poll numbers are equivalent to several who debated last night.

Debate observations: Continue reading

It’s Just One Small Episode In The Vast Accountability, Integrity And Competence Void That Is The Federal Government, But It May Answer Many Questions…

Kimberly Graves appealing her VA demotion, not because she denies gaming the system and sucking up taxpayer money, but because she feels she should get away with it.

Kimberly Graves, appealing her VA demotion, not because she denies gaming the system and sucking up taxpayer money, but because she feels she should get away with it.

As essential background, please read this excerpt from the Veterans Administration’s inspector general’s report regarding “Inappropriate Use of Position and Misuse of Relocation Program and Incentives,” from last fall:

As part of our assessment of VA’s relocation expense program (PCS program), we reviewed records related to the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) reassignment of 7 General Schedule (GS) Grade 15 employees who were promoted to Senior Executive Service (SES) positions and 15 SES employees who moved to different SES positions in fiscal years (FYs) 2013, 2014, and 2015. VBA management used moves of senior executives as a method to justify annual salary increases and used VA’s PCS program to pay moving expenses for these employees. Annual salary increases totaled about $321,000, and PCS relocation expenses totaled about $1.3 million. Additionally, VBA paid $140,000 in unjustified relocation incentives. In total, VA spent about $1.8 million on the reassignments. While we do not question the need to reassign some staff to manage a national network of VAROs, we concluded that VBA inappropriately utilized VA’s PCS program for the benefit of its SES workforce.

Ms. Kimberly Graves was reassigned from her position as the Director of VBA’s Eastern Area Office to the position of Director, St. Paul VARO, effective October 19, 2014. VA paid $129,467.56 related to Ms. Graves’ PCS move. We determined that Ms. Graves also inappropriately used her position of authority for personal and financial benefit when she participated personally and substantially in creating the St. Paul VARO vacancy and then volunteering for the vacancy.

Mr. Antione Waller, former St. Paul VARO Director, told us Ms. Graves initiated discussion with him about relocating to the Philadelphia VARO. Once he expressed a willingness to accept the reassignment, she did an apparent “bait and switch.” She told him that the Philadelphia position was no longer available and he would be considered for the Baltimore VARO Director position. When he said he was not willing to move to Baltimore, Ms. Graves told him, “you will probably get another call, this probably won’t be the last conversation about Baltimore.” In an email, Ms. Beth McCoy, who at the time was the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations and Ms. Rubens’ subordinate, told Ms. Graves that she spoke to Mr. Waller and told him his name was already submitted to the VA Secretary for Baltimore, so “saying no now is not a clean or easy option.” Once the St. Paul Director position was vacant, Ms. Graves said she contacted Ms. Rubens and said, “I’d like to throw my name in for consideration for St. Paul … I feel like I’ve done my time and I’d like to put my name in.”

Ms. Rubens’ and Ms. Graves’ reassignments resulted in a significant decrease in job responsibilities, yet both retained their annual salaries—$181,497 and $173,949, respectively. Based on Federal regulations, we determined VA could not reduce their annual salaries upon reassignment despite the decrease in the scope of their responsibilities. However, a senior executive’s annual salary can be reduced if the individual receives a less than fully successful annual summary rating, fails to meet performance requirements for a critical element, or, as a disciplinary or adverse action resulting from conduct related activity.

We made criminal referrals to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Columbia, regarding official actions orchestrated by Ms. Rubens and Ms. Graves. Formal decisions regarding prosecutorial merit are pending. We provided 12 recommendations to VA to increase oversight of VA’s PCS program and to determine the appropriate administrative actions to take, if any, against senior VBA officials.

Got that? Graves gamed the system to reduce her responsibilities while keeping her salary, and received almost $130,000 in taxpayer money as moving expenses, which, as the rest of the IG’s report documents, are routinely inflated by the VA. Continue reading

More “Blue Bloods” Ethics

Blue Bloods 2

Tom Selleck’s “Blue Bloods,” or “The Conflict of Interest Family” as we call it around our house, continues to explore difficult unethical dilemmas for an all-law enforcement family. Its latest episode’s message, however, was troubling.

Forget the secondary plot of Police Chief Frank Reagan’s staff squabbles. The meat of this installment was police detective Danny Reagan’s discovery that the well-oiled bank robbery he was on the scene to witness (it’s amazing how often the main characters in procedurals  just happen to be in banks when they are robbed) has been carried out by a group of three military combat veterans—just like Danny!. They have banded together to raise $100,000 so the female member of the trio can pay for expensive medical treatment for her wounded veteran husband. He lost his legs and sustained brain damage in Iraq.

Danny is seething at the injustice of the wounded hero being in an endless line writing for help from the Veterans Administration, and perplexed that the three perps who he has personally identified from his observations of them during the robbery—the loving spouse’s voice, one of the men’s scarred wrists, a neck tattoo on the other—are acting out love and loyalty, not greed. Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Week: The Washington Post

off-the-hook

“Resignation Lets Obama Off The Hook”

—Headline on a Washington Post front page feature on Department of Veteran’s Administration Secretary Eric Shinseke’s resignation on Friday, May 30, by reporter David Nakamura.

I almost called this an unethical quote, rather than putting it in the broader, kinder category of a statement that raises ethics issues.

The headline is unethical in the sense that it indicates once again what I have long decided is the case: the news media, journalists, editors and reporters, couldn’t identify most ethics issues if you painted one orange and hung it around their necks. Has anyone at the Post heard of the principle of accountability? That is, accepting that you are responsible for what has gone wrong under your management as well as what has gone right? President Obama has been shameless in taking bows for the few accomplishments his sad administration can legitimately claim, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, which was the result of an ongoing operation to which his primary contribution was in not lousing it up. Sometimes, as in his  jaw-dropping foreign policy speech at West Point last week, Obama recasts his nonfeasance and misfeasance as success, as he did regarding U.S. handling of the Ukraine, Syria and Iran. When his leadership really produces a pratfall, however, the reflex Presidential response has been to blame Republicans, or George W. Bush.

This has been, in fact, the attempted spin on the VA scandal. The inconvenient facts in making that case: 1) Obama promised to fix the VA ; 2) the scandal involved possible criminal activity on his watch; and 3) his appointed Secretary’s response was Obama-like, in that he acted as if he was a casual, uninvolved bystander in the mismanagement of his own department.

Isn’t it obvious to the Post, the headline writer, everyone, that nothing Shinseke did, from resignation to a self-immolating mea culpa to seppuku could “let Obama off the hook” for a catastrophe of this magnitude,  in his Administration, under his leadership, delegated to a man he appointed? How can anyone who understands anything about accountability, leadership and management think that? Continue reading

KABOOM! Wait, Head, Why Did You Explode When Nothing About This Story Should Come As A Surprise?

Wait, this shouldn't be happening...

Wait, this shouldn’t be happening…

As I once again pick my brains and skull fragments off the walls and ceiling and get the Crazy Glue, I am decided annoyed at my head for exploding at this latest blatant example of the White House screwing up in amateurish and damaging fashion, and a respected (not by me, but you know what I mean) member of the news media taking blatantly unethical steps to try to assist in damage control. After all, the Ethics Alarms KABOOM! designation is supposed to be reserved for ethics news so outrageous or beyond the realm of plausibility that it causes rational brains to overload and blow. This story, in contrast, is typical of what has been going on for the last six years. It perfectly illustrates the destructive sequence we have seen since 2008, with evidence of Obama administration incompetence and media seeing its responsibility not as informing the country so it can make informed decisions about its government, journalism’s ethical duty, but protecting the President it worked so hard to elect. I need to solve this mystery, because head explosions are bad for my heath, not to mention the decor. Let’s look at the story, and then come back to “The Mystery Of Jack’s Exploding Head.”

From the Washington Post yesterday, in a story by reporters Greg Miller:

The CIA’s top officer in Kabul was exposed Saturday by the White House when his name was inadvertently included on a list provided to news organizations of senior U.S. officials participating in President Obama’s surprise visit with U.S. troops. The White House recognized the mistake and quickly issued a revised list that did not include the individual, who had been identified on the initial release as the “Chief of Station” in Kabul, a designation used by the CIA for its highest-ranking spy in a country. The disclosure marked a rare instance in which a CIA officer working overseas had his cover — the secrecy meant to protect his actual identity — pierced by his own government. The only other recent case came under significantly different circumstances, when former CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed as officials of the George W. Bush administration sought to discredit her husband, a former ambassador and fierce critic of the decision to invade Iraq.”

As I have pointed out, again, just recently, this isn’t an isolated incident but rather the inevitable result of the top-to-bottom incompetence in the administration assembled by Barack Obama.There are undoubtedly thousands of gaffes and botches like this, big and small, with long-term consequences and short, all over the government, all the time. Some get people killed, some will, some will help countries be ravaged by despots, some waste millions, or billions of dollars. There is so much incompetence that an outrageous amount of time, manpower and effort is being diverted to covering up the messes or trying to make sure they don’t become outright catastrophes, and this government is incompetent at that, too. Continue reading

President Obama’s Epic, Tragic Incompetence: A Review

Obama

I stumbled upon this piece in Commentary by Peter Wehner. At first I was grateful that he had written it so I didn’t have to, and then was struck by the title: The New Obama Narrative: Epic Incompetence. New? This has been the narrative of the entire Obama Presidency, and I have been periodically and grimly drawing attention to that fact, while watching the mainstream media attempt to obscure it, from the very beginning. Now, as the Veteran Administration fiasco finally presents a scandal that Democrats and journalists don’t dare to try to dismiss as, in Dana Milbank’s description of the Benghazi cover-up, a “nothing-burger,” incompetence in the unaccountable, unmanaged, embarrassingly unprofessional Obama Administration is suddenly being pronounced unacceptable. To the contrary, it is because the news media unethically accepted it that the incompetence of this President is finally killing people.

The tragic legacy of Barack Obama will be recorded in three parts: his groundbreaking achievement as the nation’s first black President, his utter incompetence at governing and leadership, and his dishonesty and the dishonesty he engendered by those who reported to him. The first has been fatally undermined by the second and third, and the third, dishonesty, necessitated by the second, the relentless incompetence. The reason this is so tragic should be obvious to all. President Obama, like all trailblazers, needed to be a stand-out, exemplary performer to avoid setting back the causes his ascension needed to advance. But instead of Jackie Robinson, he has been Pumpsie Green, and that may be unfair to Pumpsie, the first black player to wear a Boston Red Sox uniform who knew his limitations, and did the best he could for as long as he could. It is also tragic because America, as much as any time in its history prior to the Civil War, needed a strong, wise, confident, unifying leader to deal with great and difficult problems that will only get worse with time. The challenges would have tested the best of leaders; for President Obama, with neither leadership instincts or talent, they have proven impossible. Worse, the basic requirements of governing have been proven to be beyond him, and he does not have the self-awareness or humility to seek the help he needs.

From Wehner’s piece:

“The emerging narrative of Barack Obama, the one that actually comports to reality, is that he is a rare political talent but a disaster when it comes to actually governing. The list of his failures is nothing short of staggering, from shovel-ready jobs that weren’t so shovel ready to the failures of healthcare.gov to the VA debacle. But it also includes the president’s failure to tame the debt, lower poverty, decrease income inequality, and increase job creation. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t. His administration promised to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a civilian jury in New York but they were forced to retreat because of outrage in his own party…The White House response to everything from the VA and IRS scandals to the seizure of AP phone records by the Department of Justice is that it learned about them from press reports. More and more Mr. Obama speaks as if he’s a passive actor, a bystander in his own administration, an MSNBC commentator speaking about events he has no real control over. We saw that earlier today, when the president, in trying to address the public’s growing outrage at what’s happening at the VA, insisted he “will not stand for it” and “will not tolerate” what he has stood for and tolerated for almost six years…On every front, he is overmatched by events. It’s painful to watch a man who is so obviously in over his head. And more and more Americans are suffering because of it.”

Continue reading