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Watchdog agency urges senior officials to focus on ethical behavior

Story highlights
  • Apol's memo comes after a series of revelations about administration officials abusing flight privileges
  • OGE can't launch investigations or enforce ethics laws

Washington(CNN) The head of the Office of Government Ethics, concerned by the actions of some high-level officials, is calling on all of them to redouble efforts to ensure ethical behavior at their respective organizations.

OGE acting Director David Apol sent letters to more than 100 agency heads, asking them to set good examples by avoiding ethically questionable decisions. An attachment to Apol's memo lists various best practices; for example, it urges officials to model a "Should I do it?" mentality versus a "Can I do it?" one. Apol also encourages leadership to invite internal ethics officials to meetings.

Apol's memo comes after a series of revelations about administration officials abusing flight privileges, which sparked several investigations and one high-level resignation.

"I'm deeply concerned that the actions of some in government leadership have harmed perceptions about the importance of ethics and what conduct is and is not permissible," wrote Apol.

The Treasury Department's inspector general said last week that the administration cut corners when approving Secretary Steven Mnuchin's use of government aircraft, which cost taxpayers about $800,000. The IG's report followed former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's resignation amid a scandal over his use of private planes. Both undermined President Donald Trump's promise to cut government waste.

Historically, OGE has been a sleepy agency with a low profile, and it can't launch investigations or enforce ethics laws. But under its previous leader, Walter Shaub, OGE garnered power by publicly criticizing the administration.

In a rare move for someone in his position, Shaub in January denounced the President's plan to resolve conflicts of interests, calling it insufficient. Shaub resigned his position in July.

It's unclear whether Apol will challenge the administration in the same way. But Shaub dismissed Apol's warnings Tuesday.

"OGE's acting director hits all of the administration's talking points. Change is going to have to come from the top, though. Call me back when the President stops using tax dollars to promote his businesses with weekly golf outings and the vice president has gone a while without spending a quarter million dollars on a choreographed political stunt at a football game," he said.