As a candidate, Trump’s claim to legitimacy and mass support was built on a rejection of insider politics and pledges to “drain the swamp” in Washington. However, in the lead up to his inauguration, he and congressional Republicans have shown multiple signs that they intend to do just the opposite, one of which is their unprecedented barrage of attacks on ethical protections.

The most discussed ethical issue is of course Trump’s unwillingness to tackle his own personal conflicts of interest and interconnected assets. But beyond that problem, there have been three other obvious affronts. First was the considered lack of focus from Trump’s Cabinet appointees on completely disclosing and dealing with their own conflicts as required by law. Second was an ignoring (and disdaining of) the Office of Governmental Ethics (OGE) as it tries to administer both Trump and his appointee’s transition process, and third was an unexpected attack on the Office of Congressional Ethics—the independent House ethics watchdog.

At his press conference last week, Trump announced a new arrangement for his business holdings, which will do little to curb his conflicts of interest. Trump declined to divest himself of his holdings, instead only transferring control of them to his two sons. Without full divestment, Trump will still have a financial interest in his global company when he takes office later this week. Scarily, that means that Trump soon will be making regulatory decisions impacting businesses (such as banks, insurance companies, and more) that are entangled with his own. He also will be deciding American foreign policy in countries where he still has holdings and where his businesses could directly profit.

Office of Governmental Ethics Director Walter Shaub has correctly described President-elect Trump’s announced plan as “wholly inadequate.” Since stating his opinion on the Trump plan, Shaub has faced several attacks. First, from U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, when he made threats in a letter to investigate and potentially eliminate the OGE. The second came from Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, when he said that Shaub should “be careful” about criticizing Trump’s handling of his business conflicts. This kind of veiled threat as Shaub tries to critique Trump’s inadequate ethics plan is thuggish and unwarranted.

On the second battle ground, OGE also has made important comments about the slow pace of Trump’s nominees to submit their ethics forms, which typically are cleared before their nominations are even announced. With so many extraordinarily rich appointees (the Cabinet will include three billionaires and is set to become the wealthiest in U.S. history), the problem of their interconnected finances is even more acute. To figure out their plans for recusal from ethical conflicts, nominees must do more than just fill out a form.

The OGE should be free to comment—both with critique and praise, as the Cabinet nominees and others move through the appointment paperwork process.

On the third ethics front, two weeks ago, as Congress started up, House Republicans tried to quietly change House rules and undermine the independent ethics watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics. The immediate public outrage led to congressional chaos and forced the Republicans to withdraw their plan.

The blatant attacks on the institutions charged with upholding ethical standards – the OCE and the OGE – coupled with the obvious disregard from incoming President Trump and some of his Cabinet members for resolving their own conflicts, leaves us deeply concerned about the state of ethics in the new administration.

There is no way to reject insider politics without keeping an ethically clean house, but the incoming Trump White House seems to need a new cleaning service.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

The Tillerson confirmation hearing reminded me at times of hearings for Supreme Court justices in that Tillerson refused to answer the vast majority of questions about his views or what he would do as Secretary of State. At the same time, he gave plenty of evidence that he would be a disastrous Secretary of State. Here are some specific pieces that jumped out:

1. Tillerson claimed that Exxon did not lobby against sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Sen. Corker interrupted to note that, actually, Tillerson had called him personally to discuss sanctions. When Sen. Menendez later confronted Tillerson with records showing that Exxon lobbied on the sanctions, Tillerson still claimed ignorance, saying he didn’t even know whether the company would have lobbied for or against the sanctions. This is damning for Tillerson because there are only two possibilities: Either he is lying, or he is a shockingly poor manager – someone who was unaware of his company’s position on an issue of enormous importance, sanctions that compromised a $500 billion oil exploration deal. AP did a good fact check on his statements.

2. On climate change:

Tillerson continued to dispute and deny settled climate science, claiming to Sen. Markey that it’s “inconclusive” that climate change makes extreme weather more likely.

Sen. Kaine set out to grill Tillerson on climate denial — and particularly allegations that Exxon knew fossil fuels cause global warming as early as the 1970s and yet to this day is funding groups that deny and cast doubt on climate science. He quickly hit a dead end because Tillerson simply refused to answer whether those allegations are true or false. His first line was that he no longer works for Exxon and the question would have to be put to them. When Sen. Kaine asked, “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Tillerson responded, “A little bit of both.”

Tillerson refused to say that the U.S. should be an international leader on climate. He said only that we should keep “a seat at the table.”

In response to Sen. Shaheen’s question about complying with international agreements to end subsidies for fossil fuels, Tillerson said he wasn’t aware of any U.S. fossil fuel subsidies. Only tax code provisions that apply to all industries. Another place he strangely lacks key knowledge about his own company and industry.

Tillerson told Sen. Markey that he doesn’t think climate change is an imminent security threat. That might be the most disqualifying thing he said all day. We can’t have a Secretary of State who doesn’t take seriously the most terrible threat to U.S. security.

3. Tillerson refused to answer countless questions about bad international actors — for example whether Putin is a war criminal for bombing civilians in Syria and whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s well-documented extrajudicial killings constitute human rights violations. He dodged every question, no matter how well-known the underlying facts, by saying he needed access to classified government information before he could render a judgment. I don’t recall a single instance in which Tillerson was willing to say that someone has engaged in human rights abuses or is war criminal. It’s not my area of expertise, but I thought he come across as ill-informed (if not simply unconcerned about serious problems in the world) and overly reliant on a pre-fabricated dodge that was often a poor fit for the question he was being asked.

Workers across the country can now literally breathe easier. Last Friday, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new rule to protect workers from beryllium exposure.  According to OSHA, the new rule will save 94 lives and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) each year.

Beryllium is a metal present in many materials used in the aerospace, defense, telecommunications, automotive, electronics and medical specialty industries. Approximately 62,000 people are exposed to beryllium in workplaces across the country. OSHA estimates that 11,500 construction and shipyard workers come in contact with beryllium while performing open-air abrasive blasting.

When workers inhale beryllium dust, they risk contracting lung cancer and other fatal diseases, such as CBD of the lungs, even when they inhale very low levels of the toxic metal as dust. CBD is an incurable, devastating lung disease that gradually scars the lungs, disabling and ultimately killing many of those afflicted.

OSHA first attempted to strengthen protections for workers from beryllium exposure in 1975, but industry backlash stymied the process and ultimately killed the rule. That’s why in 2001, Public Citizen, along with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union – which has since merged with the United Steelworkers – petitioned OSHA to lower workers’ exposure to beryllium.

In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity profiled Bruce Revers, a retired machinist and CBD patient living with the devastating effects of beryllium exposure. Doctors diagnosed Mr. Revers with CBD in 2009 after years of exposure to beryllium in the workplace. He reported that breathing is so difficult that even simple tasks like collecting the morning newspaper from the curb are a struggle to complete. Even though Mr. Revers wore a respirator in the factory where he worked, he still contracted CBD because the standards for allowable exposure are still much too high to be safe for workers in these industries.

In 2015, OSHA finally released a proposed version of the beryllium rule, which originally excluded construction and shipyard workers. In its comments on the proposed rule, Public Citizen urged OSHA to lower the existing PEL and extend the protections of the new rule to these at-risk workers, which OSHA did in the final rule. The final beryllium rule reduces the legal limit for workplace beryllium exposure – known technically as the permissible exposure limit (PEL) – to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour time-weighted average, one-tenth of the previous PEL of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

After decades of fighting for a stronger beryllium standard, Public Citizen is celebrating this long overdue victory for workers.  We will continue to fight for strong safeguards for working people in the next administration.

Emily Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Sammy Almashat is a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

In this dawning age of Government by Gazillionares, it may seem impertinent to whisper that a few of their tax breaks should be revisited. But candidate Donald Trump did pledge to reduce or eliminate “most deductions and loopholes available to the very rich.”

In this context, Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) are re-introducing the “Stop Subsidizing Multimillion Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act.”  This bill closes the loophole in tax law that allows big businesses to rake in billions of dollars in federal tax breaks every year to subsidize top executive pay packages. Current law that was signed in 1993 (otherwise known as Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code) caps the deductibility of pay at $1 million for top executives at publicly-traded corporations. Anything more is considered excess, such as a three martini lunch. The intent of the 1993 law was to protect taxpayers from subsidizing runaway executive pay. The loophole provides that a bonus tied to some performance metric, approved by shareholders, can be deducted. The problems with letting shareholders decide are many. For starters, it’s not in the interest of an owner to pay more tax. Further, shareholder voting is largely controlled by the same institutions such as mutual funds and other banks that benefit from the subsidy.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that between 2007 and 2010, a total of $121.5 billion in executive compensation was deductible from corporate earnings, and roughly 55 percent of this total was for performance-based compensation. By closing this loophole, the policy reform would raise $50 billion in revenue over 10 years. That further illustrates both the gravity of the problem as well as the utility of the reform to fund needed programs.

In the House, the Doggett bill enjoys nearly 30 co-sponsors. Senate bill co-sponsor Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct) argues that, “Even as income inequality rises and middle-class wages stagnate, American taxpayers are subsidizing tens of billions of dollars in corporate bonuses.  We should be investing in working families, not using taxpayer dollars for tax breaks to corporations that overpay their executives. ”

Those in the C-suite may argue that these princely payments are wages like all other wages, namely, a legitimate business expense. That turns on the labor theory of value, namely that workers produce value and should be compensated accordingly.  But this theory falls apart readily. Current CEOs of the Fortune 500 are paid 300 times what median workers are paid; thirty years ago, the differential was more like 50 times. It’s tough to reckon that the CEOs of the 1980s who developed the first personal computers and cell phones, new miracle medicines, fuel efficient automobiles, that they’re only a tenth as valuable as today’s corporate chiefs.

In reality, the benefactors of these bonuses control the purse strings. It isn’t that pharmaceutical titans such as Martin Shkreli  work longer hours than the average worker, or truly create wondrous products that most of us can’t imagine; instead, they game the system. In Shkreli’s case, he used other people’s money to buy a drug company named Valaent, then increased the price of an existing life-saving drug by several thousand percent. In addition to Shkreli’s compensation, Valeant CEO Michael Pearson was compensated $10 million in 2015, all subsidized by taxpayers.

On Wall Street, where the added value to the economy is suspect, the bonus culture has run amok. At JP Morgan’s London office, for example, traders gambled with hundreds of billions of dollars in deposits made cheap by the taxpayer-subsidized Federal Deposit Insurance Corp (FDIC). Sometimes they won, such as when they bet that American Airlines would go bankrupt. Sometimes they lost, such as when they overextended on a bet so complex that the JP Morgan CEO himself could identify the problem for weeks. Instead of being paid double, triple, or even 10 times the average income for US workers, (about $50,000), they received more than 100 times. Their boss, Chief Investment Officer Ina Drew, allegedly prompted the mega-trade to goose her stock-based (taxpayer subsidized) bonus, according to a Public Citizen analysis based on a Senate investigation.

Recently, Wells Fargo showed how the bonus virus—subsidized by taxpayers—led to massive fraud. Faced with termination if they failed to meet a quota of new account creation for existing customers (such as a credit card for a checking account customer, a practice known as “cross selling”), thousands of Wells Fargo employees fabricated these accounts. That led to more than a decade of faux growth reported to shareholders, according to a Public Citizen account.  The solid growth in accounts sent the stock price steadily up. And since senior manager pay derived from that stock price—deductible as a business expense—the top brass earned gold. CEO John Stumpf was paid $18 million in 2016, of which $17 billion was deductible, meaning about a third came courtesy of average American taxpayers. Senior officer Carrie Tolstedt was compensation $9 million, with all but $0.7 million deductible.

Sens. Reed, Blumenthal and Rep. Doggett have promoted this reform for years. In the past, this bill entered the concrete of divided government; this time, it becomes part of the chaos theory in which any hypothesis may prove valid.

Support for reform spans the partisan bridge. In 2006, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the then-chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, stated: “162(m) is broken. …It was well-intentioned.  But it really hasn’t worked at all.  Companies have found it easy to get around the law.  It has more holes than Swiss cheese.  And it seems to have encouraged the options industry.  These sophisticated folks are working with Swiss-watch-like devices to game this Swiss-cheese-like rule.”

Key tax policy in the Trump administration may turn on a trio of Goldman Sachs alumni: Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and National Economic Council Director-designate Gary Cohn. Goldman Sachs, the epitome of the Wall Street that feeds of Main Street, may be an unlikely breeding ground for populist reforms. Moreover, the accessible public record to date on what this trio thinks about tax policy, however, is shorter than this blog. Bannon, for example, has cancelled public appearances following the election.

One can only hope that, now they have their millions, they may feel liberated from financial concern to shape sensible policy.

As tax policy makes its way through Congress, lawmakers including the Trump administration will ideally calculate that the winners in this reform are many.

Since President-elect Donald Trump announced his choice of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, people have been speculating about how Tillerson and Exxon might deal with an ethics problem: Tillerson has around $180 million worth of Exxon stock that will vest over the next decade. He can’t hold on to it if he becomes Secretary of State because that would create a clear conflict of interest: He’d have a strong interest in boosting Exxon’s stock value.

Yesterday, Exxon and Tillerson struck a deal that media outlets are characterizing as severing Tillerson’s ties with the company. The basic terms are that Tillerson’s non-vested stock will be cashed out and the money placed in an irrevocable trust, with a slight discount, from which Tillerson will receive payments over 10 years. If he goes back to work in the oil and gas industry within 10 years, he forfeits the remaining money and it goes to a charity of the trustee’s choosing. In other words, Tillerson gets payments over time that aren’t linked to Exxon’s performance, and he has a strong incentive not to go back to his industry, so he won’t favor it while in office.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

We found a discrepancy in the documents Exxon filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The filling contains two agreements, one between Exxon and Tillerson, and one between Exxon and Northern Trust Company, which will serve as the trustee. The contract between Exxon and Tillerson says the CEO will forfeit all remaining assets in the trust if he works for the oil and gas industry in the next 10 years. But Exxon’s agreement with the trustee says that Tillerson forfeits the trust assets if he engages in “competitive” employment in the oil and gas industry – in other words, employment with any company other than Exxon.

So which is it?

The difference matters. If, under the trust agreement’s terms, Tillerson can continue to receive payments if he returns to work for Exxon during the next ten years, but not if he works for any other oil or gas company, then he retains a strong interest in Exxon. Not only would he want Exxon to perform well during his tenure as secretary of state, he’d have an incentive to advance the interests of the only company in the field where he could work – and still receive the huge trust payments – over the next ten years. That’s a far cry from eliminating his interest in the company.

Senators should ask some tough questions about this deal at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.

 

Note: Under Exxon’s current policies, the company couldn’t re-hire Tillerson as an employee because it has a mandatory retirement age of 65. But the company presumably could hire him as a consultant or contractor.

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