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  • Inside Track
    July 18, 2018

    Richard Painter on Government Ethics, Conflicts, and the Constitution

    July 18, 2018 – University of Minnesota Law Professor Richard Painter is a busy man. A former White House Chief Ethics Counsel for President George W. Bush, Painter’s thoughts and commentary on government ethics are in high demand these days.

    He’s also running for a Minnesota seat on the U.S. Senate. But he took some time to visit with lawyers who attended the State Bar of Wisconsin’s 2018 Annual Meeting and Conference (AMC) in June, and provided some thoughts in this post-session interview.

    “The people will not have confidence in their government if the reality or even the appearance is that government officials are using their government position to increase their financial wealth,” Painter said.

    Under President Bush, from 2005 to 2007, Painter worked with the President’s nominees to Senate confirmed positions on their financial conflicts of interest and compliance with government ethics regulations.

    “It’s critically important to make sure all nominees are in compliance with the conflict of interest rules before they are put up for Senate confirmation,” he said.

    Painter’s job, as chief ethics counsel, was to go through nominees’ assets, liabilities, and business relationships to ensure they were divested of all conflicts of interest.

    “If an executive branch official participates in a matter in which that executive branch official has a financial interest, they commit a crime,” Painter said.

    “So if you own stock in Goldman Sachs, you cannot go to the Treasury Department and make decisions that affect the investment banking industry.”

    The criminal conflict of interest statute, 18 U.S.C. section 208, applies to every person in the executive branch, other than the President, Vice President, and members of Congress, Painter said.

    “I think it should apply to everyone in government,” he said. “That is a loophole in our current system.” Painter, who discussed conflicts of interest in great detail during his talk at AMC, also discussed the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

    “The Emoluments Clause does apply to the President and members of Congress. It applies to every person who holds a position of trust in the U.S. Government.”

    Painter said the Emoluments Clause reaches profits and benefits earned from foreign governments, including benefits from corporations owned by foreign governments.

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