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Government Ethics and Whistleblowers

Laws and regulations codify the public interest in good government ideals and fighting bureaucratic corruption. They advocate impartiality and stress the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety or gratuities. Criminal laws penalize corruption. A law dating back to the first Congress also requires reporting violations (now at 18 U.S.C Section 4). All this public policy would seem to encourage whistleblowing. The Code of Ethics for Government Service baldly suggests that employees "Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party or Government department" and "Expose corruption wherever discovered."

The Office of Government Ethics is supposed to safeguard ethical principles in the executive branch. OGE receives the government ethics financial disclosure forms, and makes those filed by Presidential appointees--from full-fledged federal judges (not administrative judges), to top level agency personnel--available to the public. OGE also issues some advisory opinions and consults with agency ethics officers. Its web page contains annual summaries of government officials convicted of ethics violations or who sign civil settlement agreements. However, OGE is in some respects a paper tiger. It does not investigate ethics violations (leaving that to the agencies themselves). It only encourages employee responsibility.

Public Law 96-303 (passed on July 3, 1980) even required the Code of Ethics for Government Service to be posted "in appropriate areas of Federal buildings." The Supreme Court actually still posts the code in its clerk's office. However, most federal employees have always been more likely to find it in a county library (published in the black volumes of United States Code behind Title 5, Section 7301) than in their workplace. BTW, Congress repealed the posting requirement (at OMB's suggestion), as a line item in the 1996 budget.

A few pages later Executive Order No. 12674, as amended by No. 12731 on October 17, 1990, sets forth the Principles of Ethical Conduct for federal employees. These principles actually date back decades. Federal employees may or may not receive a reprint in their introductory information packets. However, federal civil servants are generally not reminded that ethics needs to be part of every workday. [BTW, anti-drug slogans can be posted pursuant to Executive Order No. 12564, reprinted between these high-minded proclamations.]


Office of Government Ethics
Ethics Regulations
DOD's Online Ethics Training
NARA's Ethics Homepage

Yahoo's Government Ethics Guide
Ethics Centers and Institutes
International Institute of Public Ethics