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Separating your federal career from your old one

There’s a key difference to working inside the government versus working outside of it. Outside the government, businesses focus on profit. They chase after it with a naked, unabashed thirst, pausing only to make sure they pay heed to the rules and—sometimes—their customers’ long-term interests. But inside the government, you work for the people. Even if that means passing up some opportunities.

That’s a lesson that one Senior Advisor to the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have learned. But it appears she might not have. According to ProPublica, the Senior Advisor had been a lobbyist for CropLife America before she joined the government. Once she entered the public sphere, she signed an ethics statement in which she agreed for one year to avoid any business with CropLife or parties she knew CropLife represented. However, her emails suggest she may have crossed that line.

Federal employees work for the United States public

While the Senior Advisor’s case is unresolved, it treads a very fine line along the borders of propriety. As ProPublica notes, there were instances where she worked directly with Dow Chemical, apparently taking advantage of her former connections. This might appear to be a conflict of interest, such as might violate executive standards, but the Agriculture Department argued it was okay. They said her deals with Dow were okay because she had never been hired by Dow directly.

Whether or not the Senior Advisor’s conduct crossed the line, it illustrates the sometimes-murky situations in which executive branch employees may find themselves. And taking the right steps in those situations can make the difference between finding yourself on the fast-track and finding yourself under investigation.

As one ethics attorney told ProPublica, federal employees should only represent the nation’s interests. To that end, all executive branch employees have been bound by a single standard of conduct since 1993. Among other things, it covers conflicts of interest that might result from:

  • Gifts
  • Business conducted with spouses, relatives and former business partners
  • Contracts and services that may favor existing relationships
  • People leveraging their positions toward new jobs
  • Non-public information applied toward financial gain
  • The misuse of public time and property

Employees suspected of these behaviors may find themselves with a lot to explain, and casual explanations might not do the trick.

Understanding your case

If you’re uncertain whether your actions might run afoul of executive standards, it may be best to seek guidance before you act. Afterward, it might be trickier—but not necessarily impossible—to explain why things that might appear to be conflicts were, in fact, not.

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