Nebraska attorney found White House ethics work "incredible"

Alice Bartek-Santiago during her NET News interview. (Photo by Jim Fackler, Creighton University)
Alice Bartek-Santiago during her NET News interview. (Photo by Jim Fackler, Creighton University)
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March 29, 2018 - 6:45am

It was seven months of public service Alice Bartek-Santiago never envisioned growing up in Wahoo, Nebraska.

She was working in Washington D.C. in the White House complex of offices during one of the most chaotic and historic times in recent American history: the presidency of Donald Trump.


Ethics attorney Alice Bartek-Santiago, originally from Wahoo, Nebraska, interviewed by Bill Kelly of NET News. (Photo by Jim Fackler, Creighton University)

Bartek-Santiago's responsibilities could not have been more pivotal to how the country perceived this president. She worked in the White House counsel’s office as an ethics attorney.

One day Bartek-Santiago was reviewing a billionaire executive’s personal finances looking for potential conflicts of interest as they entered service in the executive branch. Later she had the “surreal” experience of being at the White House Christmas party where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were “just hanging out over in a corner having a drink.”

Such was the adrenaline rush for a young attorney hoping to build a career advising the powerful on the importance of ethics in government and business.

The White House detail was temporary. She served for seven months beginning in August 2017. By the end of March 2018 Bartek-Santiago returned to her job at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, overseeing Freedom of Information Act requests and providing ethics training.

A diverse set of jobs lead to the White House. Previously she worked as a public defender in criminal court in Saunders County, Nebraska, assisted a non-profit human rights organization, and served in the U.S. Air Force.

NET News spoke with Bartek-Santiago during a return visit to her law college alma mater, Creighton University in Omaha (Class of 2011). She spoke to law students and working attorneys as part of the school’s continuing education program on ethics in the law.



THE ETHICS PLEDGE

Every U.S. President establishes their own set of ethical guidelines. President Trump’s executive order detailing the commitments for executive branch employees and appointees includes the following:

"Ethics Pledge. Every appointee in every executive agency appointed on or after January 20, 2017, shall sign, and upon signing shall be contractually committed to, the following pledge upon becoming an appointee:

As a condition, and in consideration, of my employment in the United States Government in an appointee position invested with the public trust, I commit myself to the following obligations, which I understand are binding on me and are enforceable under law."

A multi-point set of guidelines follow.

CLICK HERE to read the Executive Order.


THE WATCHDOGS

Besides the staff in the White House office of ethics counsel, who else oversees the ethics of the president and other high-ranking officials? Who has the power to investigate or enforce ethics rules and laws?

As NPR reported in March 2017 “the answer can be as entangled as the government bureaucracies involved.”

"A number of agencies or government bodies have a hand in holding presidents and appointees accountable on ethics and conflicts of interest. A few play an outsize role but only some have direct purview over the activities of the president."

CLICK HERE for NPR’s reference sheet.

Alice Bartek-Santiago, ethics counsel: The position I just left, I just completed a seven-month detail to the White House where I was working in White House counsel's office, in the executive office of the president as an ethics attorney.

(An ethics counsel provides) conflict analysis, usually helping people fill out their financial disclosures, answering questions about whether they can attend certain events, if they can hold outside positions, if there are any things that are going to present complex (conflict of interest issues) based on things that they own, stuff they do, things that their spouse does, where they work, or their dependent children.

Mainly identifying any conflicts of interest that may arise for an individual and making sure they comply with the federal ethics regulations.

Bill Kelly, NET News: You're attempting to do this ahead of time before they get in trouble?

Bartek-Santiago: Yes! You want to front load the information you're giving to them, because we want to be proactive, not reactive. Just a lot of stuff that people maybe don't readily think about because they're just trying to get their job done. It's our duty then to make sure they know what their federal ethics expectations are.

Kelly: We elected a president who for the first time in modern history, came straight out of business and straight into elected office, which for your type of work, poses some really interesting challenges in trying to navigate where business ends and government begins. A number of his appointees and those who are hired, were in the same position as well. Does that pose significant new issues, unprecedented issues for your office?

Bartek-Santiago: Especially compared to (similar work I had done) when I was at the Federal Trade Commission, to review the financial disclosure for people who are millionaires, for people who are billionaires, was something I had not yet done. Just looking at the number of financial instruments (and) their sophistication, because when you're at that level, you can hire people who can do some pretty amazing stuff with your investments.

Some of these people are coming straight out of the business world. A number of them have had to divest, not only financial interests in holdings, but also positions. Some of them were CEOs of companies they had started. There are a lot of sacrifices people had to give up in order to come and work for the administration, in order to come work for Trump.

Kelly: And you were dealing with some of the folks at that level?

Bartek-Santiago: That's right. Some of the assistants to the president, some of the special assistants to the president, the deputy assistant to the president.

Kelly: In your resume, you are referred to as a “substantive ethics expert.” Explain that.

Bartek-Santiago: That means I am familiar with the nuances of the law. It's my job to catch the devils in the details. It's all of the little nuances. There are a number of rules which state things in black and white. But it's the variations.

One of the rules is you can't misuse your official position for personal gain. Well, personal gain isn't necessarily just for your personal gain. It can be for personal gain of another person. Then you've also potentially violated a set of civil or criminal statutes. The questions I'm answering on a daily basis are these one-off situations of people with really bizarre financial instruments, if you're a really sophisticated investor.

Inevitably people say, "Hey, I've got this really sophisticated fund. I have no idea how to identify what my potential conflicts are. Can you help me?" Those are the kinds really dynamic ethics questions where I can assist. That's where my expertise lies.

Kelly: If the impression of this administration from its critics is that have been some serious ethics issues, how does that square with the experience you had in that office?

Bartek-Santiago: There were things that happened where I saw firsthand how some things went down in the White House, and what I then saw later as a news media story was just not right. For the people who are critics and they say the program (is) broken or the employees, they're out of control, that's not true.  There is a good program in place.

At the White House, they're a year and a couple of months in, it's going to continue to get better. There have been a couple of slip-ups, sure. But I mean, there are slip-ups ups in every agency. That's what happens. That's why these rules are in place. You then counsel the people after the slip-ups have occurred. You investigate if you need to, based on anything else (that) was implicated, and you move on.

People there are motivated and they're doing a great job.

Kelly: In watching the White House literally across the street, reading what you did, hearing what you did, do you have a sense this president and his family have sufficiently set up that separation between government service and their private interests to earn that trust of the American people?

Bartek-Santiago: (Taking a moment to gather her thoughts, speaking in a whisper: Can I answer that one?)

Yes, I believe that they have. All that I can say on that one, I guess.

Kelly: Can you say on a philosophical basis why you believe that?

Bartek-Santiago: I know that the assets President Trump and his family own underwent the same analysis any other official at another executive agency would have undergone as far as identifying where potential conflicts lie. The decisions were made that certain assets were divested, and the way they divested (they) had to make sure it was done in a way that might fully kind of walled off the people that needed to be walled off. I think so. I think the job that was done there was an accurate job and it was a good job as far as identifying those conflicts of interest and making sure the first family and members of the first family who are also working in the federal government are able to do their job and do it outside of the sphere of a conflict of interests.

Kelly: There would be times, there would be news events involving ethics issues at the White House. Even if you weren't directly involved in those cases, did it cause you to reflect on the kind of work that you're doing?

Bartek-Santiago: So luckily, my name never showed up in any of the articles. Thank goodness. That was a goal achieved! (Laughs) Certainly some of my colleagues ended up in articles that did not view the administration or the way that it was treating ethics favorably. Some pretty negative pieces. I thought about that because some of the articles written addressed the entire ethics team and that implicates me.

I felt like it was unfair because I knew that was a mischaracterization of the work I was doing. I know that I do a great job. I know that the people I advise and that I counsel (get) good advice and I'm giving them solid, ethics guidance. It bothered me, but it made me work harder.

Kelly: Have there been other times with other agencies in the government where you've seen the headlines about somebody in the Trump administration doing something that may have pushed an ethical line and your reaction was ‘that would have been so easy to avoid?’

Bartek-Santiago: Yeah. I know one that got some ground when Kellyanne Conway inadvertently endorsing some of Ivanka Trump's products. That happened prior to me arriving there on my detail. I only saw that fully from the outside. She didn't do it because she was a paid spokesman for Ivanka or anything like that. She just did it because they're friends and like you would do for any other friend, if you appreciate your friend's fashion line, you'd maybe bring it up.

Kelly: But it's different in government service.

Bartek-Santiago: And unfortunately, that is an endorsement, and endorsements, if you're a federal employee, are prohibited. They are a direct violation of an ethics regulation.

I know Kellyanne had definitely received her ethics counseling in her training and all of that. She wasn't readily immediately aware of all the nuances to the endorsement prohibition. It wouldn't have occurred to her that, "Oh, as I'm speaking about my friend's clothing line, maybe I shouldn't do that."

It's unfortunate when you see people right in the beginnings of their federal government time and they are in a public sphere where basically everything they're saying is being recorded. Those people are in very unique positions to be high risk to inadvertently violate an ethics regulation.

Kelly: When you took this job, you had worked under the previous administration (President Obama) and worked under the Trump administration in the White House. Did you get a sense that the expectations were different?

Bartek-Santiago: I don't think so. I mean, I know that the rules, they remain static. Certainly, they change a couple of times based on new interpretations that arise or new advisories of the Government Office on Ethics.

Kelly: Were you ever asked to do anything that you were uncomfortable with?

Bartek-Santiago: At the White House?

Kelly: Yeah, at the White House.

Bartek-Santiago: Was I uncomfortable with (anything)? No, honestly. 

One thing I did not know until I started this, is every ethics program with each new administration starts new. There's no binder that President Obama gave to President Trump that said, "This is how you run a successful ethics program." Every new president was once in their place. They determine how their ethics program is going to be run. They hire all new people. They rely on those people then to help set out the program and how it's going to be run.

If there was something in place that they were doing that I thought could be improved upon, I mentioned that. I made it known. What I really appreciated was that I was listened to. Certainly, my expertise was respected.

No, there was nothing I was ever asked to do, or I felt uncomfortable. It's quite the opposite. There were things that kind of gave me the chance to shine.

Kelly: When you were brought into this role, were you asked your party affiliation?

Bartek-Santiago: No, never. At no point has anybody ever asked me what I'm registered as a voter, or who I voted for or anything like that.

But you have to also figure, as a detailee to the White House under this administration, you probably will only want to work for administrations where you may be aligned potentially with the party. That's how some people feel about it.

For me though, I wanted to work for the executive office of the president, for the highest office in the federal government, right? For the players who are the major hitters, the movers and the shakers. That to me was going to be absolutely incredible. That's what I was focused on.

President Trump is there right now, but to me, it was about working for that office.

Kelly: Why is the government ethics work fundamentally important?

Bartek-Santiago: There's a phrase that they always throw about for ethics. "Public office is a public trust." If the American public does not trust their government, then there is no government, right? Then you have something completely different in place. In order to make sure that everybody is on the same page as far as what they need to do to maintain that public trust, government ethics programs are paramount.

All of that stuff is in place to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The federal ethics programs are in place to make sure that people maintain the appearance that they are doing what they need to do, on top of then, also doing what they need to do, also being compliant.

At places where the ethics program is broken, because there are some agencies that struggle more than others, it's tough. You can't perform the mission of your agency if you don't have the backing of people because they don't trust you

Kelly: For those who came to you as clients and you're reviewing their private financial matters, was there ever an occasion where folks without previous government experience said, "This is silly. I don't need this advice. This isn't how the real world works. Thank you very much, but I'm not doing this"?

Bartek-Santiago: Sure, there's always going to be pushback. Every ethics official experiences pushback when somebody is disclosing what they own. Especially if they're coming from the business side and they don't have that background. When you're a federal employee, you basically give up all your personal information.

So, at that instance, you just let them know, "I am the messenger, don't shoot the messenger, but this is the message. If that's going to be a problem ..."

That does make some people decline federal positions. After an ethics official looks at it, then we have a conversation like, "Hey, if you were to come on board into this position, you're probably going to have to get rid of all of this stuff. You're probably going to have to resign from these positions, and you're never going to be able to work on matters involving this. Do you still want to come here?"

That is a question to which sometimes people say, 'No, thank you.' It needs to be because they want to serve the government. It can't be because it's going to be a lucrative gig for them later. It should be because they want to come in and they want to do work for the American public.

Kelly: You had an office in the White House?

Bartek-Santiago: My office was actually in the Eisenhower executive office building, so next door to the White House, but still on the White House complex.

Kelly: For the kid in Nebraska, what's that like reporting for work the first day (in August 2017)?

Bartek-Santiago: It was incredible. You go through a gate where anybody else that's entering the complex goes through the same security guard check, with people that you see on TV.

I remember, there was the White House Christmas party, which was probably a highlight of my time there. Absolutely incredible.

You're in the East Room. Foreign leaders and past presidents have been entertaining people there for hundreds of years, since practically the start of this country. And now, here you are in there enjoying food and drink with a bunch of folks and, oh hey, there's Jared and Ivanka Trump just hanging out over in a corner, just like normal people, having a drink and enjoying some food. Just as part of the holiday festivities.

So yeah, it really blew me away, the kind of stuff that happened was surreal.


Reporter's Note: The interview transcript here has been condensed for time and to better sequence topics talked about during the conversation.

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