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Government Ethics Stories of the Year

Robert Walker, former chief counsel of the Senate Ethics Committee and now of Wiley Rein, said one of the stories of the year was the “scandal” over a lavish conference held by the General Services Administration, the nation’s federal acquisition and procurement agency. Details of the 2010 GSA conference, which became public in April of this year, sparked outrage over perceived excess and waste. In addition to the $800,000 price tag, embarrassing videos of the event poured gasoline on the fire. As a result, the GSA and other government agencies made dramatic changes to their policies for conferences and travel expenses.

In August, the GSA announced that after a “top to bottom review,” it had canceled “47 conferences and implemented strong oversight to ensure that all travel and events are limited to necessary and essential functions.”

Ken Gross, former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, now of Skadden, named the criminal trial of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., as one of the ethics stories of the year. The case relied on a novel interpretation of campaign finance law, under which the government alleged that payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars from two of Edwards’ friends to his mistress should have been treated as campaign contributions to his 2008 presidential run because their purpose was to conceal the affair and thereby aid Edwards’ campaign. That theory met with considerable skepticism from some experts.

The trial ended in May with the jury acquitting Edwards of one charge and deadlocking on five others. Federal prosecutors later announced they would not try again. The charges against Edwards “should never have been brought in the first case,” Gross said.

Notwithstanding the Edwards trial, Gross said that “perhaps the biggest scandal of the year is that there have not been any scandals.” He attributes this to the courts having “essentially legalized unlimited money from virtually any source” as well as “the inability of the FEC to agree on fundamental definitions in the law and hence on the enforcement of the law.”

Does that mean 2013 will not bring any new questions of ethics for us to consider? Somehow, I doubt it. See you next year.

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to cdavidson@mcguirewoods.com. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.

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