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Weintraub Cleaning Up FEC’s Ethics Code

Newly installed Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, an ethics expert in her former life as a D.C. lawyer and Congressional staffer, is spearheading an effort to clean up the watchdog agency’s ethics code.

Weintraub described the rulemaking project as more of an “efficiency move” than any sort of substantive change.

“The purpose is to bring our regulations into conformity with the [U.S. Office of Government Ethics’] regulations,” she said in an interview.

In a nutshell, Weintraub foresees the agency reconciling its “Standards of Conduct” for employees with the far more detailed guidelines set forth by OGE.

But Weintraub emphasized that it’s not the ethics practices of the agency that will be changing, just the format in which they are presented.

She wants the new rules to be more detailed and clear. “I don’t anticipate it will be controversial,” the chairwoman said, adding that it’s “really just a clean-up operation.”

But even if it is a minor move in the scheme of the pressing business on the FEC’s agenda, it is one for which Weintraub is imminently qualified.

While Weintraub most recently practiced law with Perkins Coie, she previously spent six years on Capitol Hill, where she served as counsel to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. In that capacity, she focused on implementing the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 and the subsequent changes to the House Code of Official Conduct.

She also served as editor in chief to the House Ethics Manual and was a principal contributor to the Senate Ethics Manual.

Weintraub’s effort at the FEC will not be nearly as comprehensive, but this former ethics lawyer said she is eager to get started on a project that has been on the FEC’s back burners for some time.

Members of Congress are subject to specific ethics regulations regarding their outside income, post-Congressional employment and other areas. Likewise, certain federal employees are also subject to specific gift rules, post-employment restrictions and various conflict-of-interest provisions.

FEC employees are also subject to some additional restrictions because of the nature of the agency.

Along with more than a dozen other agencies, including the Secret Service, FBI and National Security Agency, the FEC requires its employees to abide by restrictions in the Hatch Act that prohibit employees from engaging in many types of partisan political activity.

The prohibitions make perfect sense, Weintraub noted, because “for obvious reasons you don’t want to have FEC commissioners politicking … It might cause people to question our impartiality.”

Meanwhile, Weintraub might at long last get the Senate confirmation hearing she’s been waiting for later this year.

On Jan. 9, President Bush officially nominated Weintraub, a Democrat, and GOP Commissioner Michael Toner, a Republican, to their respective positions on the panel.

Bush made recess appointments of both commissioners to the FEC last year. But a formal confirmation process, including Senate hearings and a vote by the body, is necessary for both Weintraub and Toner to serve out the remainder of their terms, which extend through April 30, 2007.