A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that it’s not just a handful of members of Congress who have traded stocks in ways that appear guided by inside information from government. Thousands of government employees are doing it as well. Among them were many whose stocks could rise or fall based on decisions their agencies made. Clearly the rules regarding financial conflicts of interest among federal employees need a review and potential overhaul.
Much has been written about the improper stock trades of multiple members of Congress before the pandemic shutdowns of 2020. Investigations are pending, but the facts already known strongly indicate that elected officials used information gleaned from closed hearings and other perks of congressional power to either dump or buy stocks in ways that profited them during the financial convulsions of the coronavirus.
What the extensive Wall Street Journal series found is that it wasn’t just elected officials, and it wasn’t just during the pandemic.
The newspaper looked at the financial disclosure forms of about 12,000 senior federal employees and presidential appointees from 2016 through 2021, including information on trades in stocks, bonds and other funds by the officials and their families. It found that more than 2,600 officials in dozens of government agencies invested in companies that were lobbying the very agencies they work for.
At the Environmental Protection Agency alone, for example, more than 200 employees held stock in oil or other companies that lobby the EPA. Defense Department officials or their family members together held as much as $3.4 million in stocks in defense and aerospace companies. Fully one-third of senior officials at the Federal Trade Commission traded stock in companies that were under merger review or investigation by the commission. In many cases, employees of regulatory agencies made key stock trades in companies ahead of regulatory decisions by their own agencies that could affect the value of those stocks.
There are some conflict-of-interest rules within some agencies regarding employee stock holdings — but in some cases, they were waived by superiors to avoid litigation. That was the case with the spouse of a Commodity Futures Trading Commission economist who engaged in short-selling of nearly 3,000 stocks, a method of trading that the commission prohibits for its employees.
The problem is clear: Federal employees have a duty to the taxpayers, which should be their only motivation for the decisions they make on the job. But if a federal employee who has a role in regulating a given energy company also holds stock in that company, who’s to say what factors are influencing that person’s decisions?
Congress should review current conflict-of-interest regulations for federal employees, update them if necessary, and insist that agencies throughout government uphold the rules. Public trust in Washington is shaky enough these days without situations like this shaking it further.
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