Hindsight is 20/20. In retrospect, we can often see what our OIG investigation clients could have done to prevent the investigation. The three ideas below won’t prevent every investigation, but they can help mitigate the most serious consequences to your career or to your company.
It’s worth pointing out that each of these tips could backfire pretty spectacularly if you are planning to do something that is outright illegal. Each requires advance disclosure of your conduct to someone in authority. If you tell your supervisor, “I’m planning to award a federal contract to a company that I own,” then your problem is not going away.
Most of our clients’ conduct, though, is in the gray area between right and wrong. If our clients had sought advice from someone in their agency, then the OIG will have a much harder time concluding that they intended to do something wrong. Good faith is a strong defense.
First, if you are a federal employee, contact your agency’s ethics officer to discuss questions about how to handle a particular situation. Each division of an agency has a “designated agency ethics official” or DAEO, who can answer your questions, too. It likely also has an “alternate designated agency ethics official” (ADAEO), who is the deputy to the DAEO.
The point is: there is always someone in your agency with whom you can discuss your dilemma and ask for advice about the right course of conduct.
The U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has a page that lists the highest ethics official in each agency. You can always contact that person and s/he will get you in touch with the right person within your division.
The best process is to put your question in writing. If you have a phone call with the ethics official, then take contemporaneous notes and consider sending the ethics official a follow-up email documenting the conversation.
Dear Ms. DAEO
Thanks for talking to me today about how to handle the situation where my aunt is seeking a contract from the agency. I understand that I should send my supervisor a formal recusal from the matter and ensure that I have no involvement in awarding the contract, evaluating her bid, or working with her if she is awarded the contract. I have attached a copy of my proposed recusal letter. If you have any suggestions or additions, please let me know.
Second, seek advice from your agency’s Office of General Counsel. It’s quite possible that the OGC will simply refer you to the ethics official, but it is helpful to have a documented paper trail where you sought OGC’s advice about the right course of conduct.
Third, let your supervisor know what you are doing. This is particularly relevant where the matter seems relatively minor. It cannot hurt to get your supervisor’s input on an issue. Even if your supervisor may not know the ethics (or other) rules in great detail, she should know enough to tell you to contact the ethics official or OGC. And, at least, you will not have hidden the conduct, which is always a helpful fact during an investigation later.
In case you can’t tell, here’s the takeaway: disclose! disclose! disclose! Keeping things secret—or looking like you are—makes OIG agents suspicious. The fact is, most federal employees have never had to contact their agency’s ethics official and are intimidated by the process. You shouldn’t be—the role of the ethics official is to answer these types of questions. There are no dumb questions.
Often, our clients have told their supervisor (at least some of the facts). But sometimes the employee and the supervisor have different recollections about the conversation. That’s why putting things in writing can be very helpful down the road.
Here’s one more tip: When you started working at your agency, you almost certainly received ethics training. You may not have paid close attention to it, figuring that you would never have to deal with those issues.
Go back and dig up the materials from that training. They often cover a range of topics but those materials will help you identify red flags in a particular situation. If you see any read flags, then follow the tips above.
OGE also has a list of “14 Principles” that are easy to read to see if anything you are planning to do is potentially problematic. The problem, of course, is that you are looking at your conduct through a lens that you are not doing something wrong; the OIG will look at your conduct through a lens that you are doing something wrong. These 14 Principles are vague enough that they may not answer your questions.
OIGs will track down the materials for the ethics training you received to prove that you knew what you were doing was wrong. If you were trained that you cannot give a federal contract to a relative’s company, then the OIG will use the training materials to conclude that it wasn’t an innocent mistake.
* Not really guaranteed. Honestly, the title is clickbait.