Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Jennifer Ahearn, Policy Director, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington discusses Accountability 2021 and ethics reform.

Can you tell us about CREW and your role at the organization?

CREW is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses aggressive legal actions, in-depth investigations, and innovative policy and reform work to achieve the vision of an ethical, accountable, and open government. As CREW’s policy director, I leverage CREW’s work and expertise in campaign finance, ethics, transparency and accountability to help make the structural changes we need for an accountable, inclusive and ethical government.

How did you get involved in the Accountability 2021 initiative and what do you hope it will accomplish from CREW’s perspective?

CREW has long been a member of Open The Government and we’ve always appreciated the important role OTG plays in helping our community work together effectively, so when I heard about Accountability 2021, I knew it would be a thoughtful and powerful initiative. I hope it will demonstrate to the incoming Biden team what a committed administration can achieve in these areas – they have an opportunity to make big strides toward restoring Americans’ trust in the federal government.

There are important recommendations regarding ethics in A2021 for the Biden administration, what are the top three CREW would like prioritized?

When it comes to ethics in any organization, tone from the top is critically important – the last four years have shown us what a bad tone can do, but the good news is that a good tone can also be very powerful. We’ll be looking for a strong ethics executive order – the Biden administration has said they’ll issue one early in the year – but also looking for new trust-building measures, like requiring agencies, not just the White House, to publish visitor logs, and making it much easier for the public to access ethics information like waivers and financial disclosures. 

CREW has the most comprehensive record of Trump’s 3,400 conflicts of interest during his presidency. That’s an incredible amount, how does your team keep track of all of it all?

It’s staggering. Our incredible researchers comb through tons of public data, including required disclosures like campaign finance and tax documents as well as less traditional sources, like social media. We’ve gone through several iterations of our tracking over the course of time, adapting to the different ways the conflicts arise and also trying to figure out how to tell the story of influence in this administration, which is unlike any we’ve seen in modern U.S. history.

Which conflicts of interest have been the most outrageous and which are little-known but would surprise everyday Americans?

I personally think the most outrageous conflicts have been the ones (and there are many) where Trump is personally enriching himself at taxpayer expense. We’ve paid well over $100 million to indulge his decisions to play golf, eat or socialize at his properties, and we know over $1 million has gone into his pocket from the Secret Service alone. I think people might be surprised at how much all of this has contributed to keeping Trump’s properties afloat – for example, we know that one set of visits to Trump’s Manhattan hotel from Saudi Arabian officials in 2018 was enough to put the hotel in the black for a quarter. And it’s been reported that when Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, it was “the most successful promotional event in the club’s history”!  

What becomes of the 600+ legal actions CREW has taken because of Trump’s infractions after he leaves office?

No doubt some of them will be moot, but there is still so much we don’t know about what’s happened while Trump has been in office. And from what we do know, it’s fair to say that a lot of people may need to be held accountable for what they did – including people like Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, whose term in office doesn’t end when President Trump leaves. So the investigations and accountability can’t end just because the Trump administration does.

The Biden administration will begin on January 20, 2021. What is CREW usually on the lookout for after a presidential inauguration? Can you walk us through your process for holding the new administration accountable?

The beginning of an administration can tell us a lot about how they will approach ethics and accountability issues. For one thing, it’s a time when a lot of people need to be hired very quickly – we’ll be looking to see if appointees address their ethics issues fully and if the administration is transparent about that. We’ll also be on the lookout for whether the administration observes the norms that aren’t (yet!) required by law, like avoiding nepotism in the White House and properly disciplining senior administration officials who violate the Hatch Act – these things are currently in the president’s discretion. We’ll be watching, and taking action if necessary.

On the congressional front, are there issue areas you will be focusing on when the new Congress begins in January?

We know Speaker Pelosi has said that passing the For the People Act will be a very early priority for the House, so we’ll be working to make that the best voting rights, campaign finance and ethics bill it can be. But we know that, like after Watergate, the reforms we need will take time to get right. So we’re in it for the long haul.

What upcoming projects or reports should the public should be on the lookout for from CREW?

Soon we’ll be rolling out a major policy project that I’m really excited about – I’m hoping it will paint a compelling, positive vision of what our democracy can be, bringing us closer to an ethical, inclusive and accountable government. But we certainly won’t be slowing down on the litigation or investigation fronts, either – special interests and influence seekers may have to change their tactics after the Trump administration ends, but we’ll be there fighting for ethics and accountability just as we have been since 2003.

What’s the most beneficial part of being part of Open The Government as a coalition partner?

We can always count on Open The Government to connect us with the full scope of transparency issues and people working on transparency – which is critical, because there’s no way that we as one organization could have expertise on all of them. Coalitions like Open The Government make us all stronger.