United States Office of Government Ethics, Preventing Conflicts of Interest in the Executive Branch

Ethics Agreements: Where Ethics Obligations Become Action
July 24, 2019

By: Dale "Chip' Christopher, Deputy Director for Compliance

When individuals move from professions outside of the government into senior positions at federal agencies and departments, they often bring with them any number of financial and business interests.  These interests, in the form of assets, debts, and positions can pose the potential for conflicts of interest with their new government duties.  To ensure that these interests do not interfere with the individuals’ ability to serve, OGE oversees a robust process of financial disclosure, which culminates in an “ethics agreement.” An ethics agreement is a set of written commitments by the individual to take specific steps to avoid conflicts of interest.  

Making and following through on these commitments is an important first step in preventing conflicts of interest; this is where ethical obligations become action.

The process begins when the prospective official completes a financial disclosure report.  Once filed, ethics officials in the agency where the filer intends to serve, the White House, and OGE work together to identify potential conflicts.  These potential conflicts are addressed using an ethics agreement where appointees detail, in writing, the actions they will take to resolve the conflicts. Such actions may include selling certain financial holdings and resigning from outside positions.  Unless otherwise specified in the ethics agreement, appointees agree to take the specified actions within 90 days of confirmation by the Senate.

To ensure that appointees take all of the actions required in an ethics agreement in a timely manner, OGE requires to them to submit a Certification of Ethics Agreement Compliance form (pdf) within 90 days of confirmation. Using this form, the appointees certify that they have taken all necessary actions to resolve any potential conflicts. OGE posts these certifications on its website so citizens can be sure appointees are avoiding potential conflicts of interest.  If an appointee has not complied timely or has received an extension, OGE publishes this information as well.   

If an appointee does not comply with either the terms or the timeframes of their ethics agreement, the Director of OGE will take appropriate steps (pdf).  These steps may include declining to certify the appointee’s annual public financial disclosure report, and/or notifying the agency head or the White House, as appropriate.