FDL Late Nite: Cindy McCain and The Little People
Meet the Office of Government Ethics, created in 1978, and OGE Form 450: Confidential Financial Disclosure Report – Executive Branch [pdf]. As it says right at the top, OGE 450 is designed to "assist employees and their agencies in avoiding conflicts between official duties and private financial interests or affiliations." You submit it to your agency’s ethics official, and depending on the agency and your specific job, it may also be shared with your supervisor, so that he or she can appropriately manage your job assignments. For example, if you are invested in Amalgamated Worldwide Widgets, Inc., you probably shouldn’t be working on a contract on which AWW will be bidding. The same hold true if AWW owes you money, if you recently held a job working for them, or if you have an AWW job waiting for you in the future. The supervisor has to know about these potential conflicts of interest, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
And when I say "you" up above, OGE reads that to mean "you, your spouse, and your dependent children."
That’s the part that would drive Cindy nuts. When she appeared on the Today Show on May 8th, she was pretty firm about keeping her financial information out of public view:
One issue [Cindy] is hearing about already is her refusal to release her tax returns. When she and McCain married in 1980, they signed a prenuptial agreement in which they agreed to keep their finances separate. The candidate has released his tax returns, but Mrs. McCain told Curry that even if she becomes first lady, her finances will remain private.
“My husband and I have been married 28 years,” Mrs. McCain said. “And we have filed separate tax returns for 28 years. This is a privacy issue. My husband is the candidate. I am not the candidate.”
Ah, privacy — such a noble concept. Also, in this case, a "bright shiny object."
OGE 450 specifically includes spouses and dependent children — regardless of whether one has a prenuptial agreement or not, and regardless of whether a couple files their taxes jointly or separately — and they’ve been asking for this information for a long, long time.
Back in 1993, OGE released Advisory Opinion 93 x 38, which explained exactly why spouses and children are included in the reporting on OGE 450. [The bold has been added for emphasis, but the underlining is original]:
Your letter of November 21, 1993, responded to a request for comments on the Executive Branch Personnel Confidential Financial Disclosure Report form (SF 450) [ed. – now OGE 450], and you asked for our feedback. We understand that you are a management specialist in a GS-12 position with [an agency], currently involved in commercial acquisition. Your specific concerns are the time required to complete the form outside of work hours, the basis for disclosing financial information not directly related to Government duties (especially for your wife and children), and the invasion of privacy which may occur when reports are passed between various offices for review.
Regarding the need to disclose information which you suggested might not present direct conflicts with Government duties, such as mutual funds, IRAs, and the holdings of family members, it is important to recognize that the laws and regulations on conflict of interest are quite comprehensive and sometimes complex. We share your concern that information disclosed on the SF 450 should be limited to matters which might be expected to present conflicts between private financial interests and official responsibilities. However, often the potential for conflict is subtle and may arise, for example, from the underlying assets held in an investment vehicle, such as an IRA. Similarly, a mutual fund may present conflicts through its underlying holdings, particularly if it concentrates investments in a particular sector of the economy. The fact that an asset may be held by your wife or dependent child rather than you personally does not alter the potential for conflict. In that regard, a criminal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 208, as well as the standards of conduct regulation, prohibits Government employees from participating in official matters where they or their spouse or minor children have a financial interest.
Because of the complexity and criminal nature of many of these rules, it has long been the practice of the executive branch, as specified by executive orders and statutes, to require affirmative disclosure of financial information from employees whose positions are determined by their agency to present potential conflicts. Such disclosures help insure that employees are not left unassisted in their efforts to avoid ethical violations. The confidential system is not meant to question the assumption that employees are basically honest, but simply to assist them and to help insure public confidence in Government integrity.
Cindy, here’s the deal. The president works for We The People, who have a legitimate interest in knowing that presidential conduct is not shaped by personal financial interests or by the interests of the president’s spouse or minor children.
God forbid that anyone should question John’s integrity because you won’t release even some basic financial data. But still, if that’s a problem for you, there is an easy solution: have John tell the good folks meeting in Minneapolis in September, "Never mind."
If a certain limited amount of financial disclosure is good enough for roughly 277,215 of The Little People® who work in the Executive Branch and fill out OGE 450 each year — along with their spouses and children — then it’s probably good enough for you.
(h/t FDL commenter Bilbo, a spouse of one of The Little People®, for directing me to OGE 450.)