An Overview of Government Ethics Standards

53 Pages Posted: 2 May 2012

See all articles by Kathleen Clark

Kathleen Clark

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: April 2012


Federal, state and local governments impose detailed ethics restrictions on their employees. The substantive ethics restrictions vary in their details across federal, state and local jurisdictions. Some place significant restrictions on the kinds of partisan political activities their employees can engage in; others do not. The precise contours of gift restrictions vary considerably, from how broadly the gift ban is defined to how many exceptions exist. While most jurisdictions have anti-nepotism statutes, there is considerable variation regarding what types of relatives are covered. These variations reflect the fact that ethics standards are generally the result of legislative action, and legislatures often come up with different solutions to the same problem.

This memorandum describes restrictions on the financial interests, associations and activities of current and former government employees that fit under the rubric of “government ethics.” It does not catalog every government ethics restriction adopted by all federal, state and local jurisdictions. Instead, it uses as a template the standards that apply to the federal government’s executive branch. The federal executive branch ethics standards may not be a perfect model for other jurisdictions to emulate, but it is a mature system of government ethics regulation, having been developed and implemented over several decades. It provides one example of what a comprehensive system of ethics regulation looks like. Part II of this memorandum describes in some detail the full range of ethics restrictions that apply to federal executive branch employees, from conflicts of interest to restrictions on the types of work they can perform after leaving the government.

In discussing government ethics, it is important to focus not just on substantive restrictions but also on the mechanisms and structures that implement those restrictions. Ethics laws are not self-executing, and a jurisdiction that has tough ethics standards but fails to implement them leaves itself vulnerable to corruption and abuse. The third part of this memorandum discusses these different designs for implementing government ethics restrictions. The fourth part of the memorandum then examines the degree to which other jurisdictions have adopted variations of these restrictions. For example, with regard to financial interests, the federal government imputes to the employee the financial interests of some – but not all family members: the employee’s spouse and minor children. Other jurisdictions have taken a broader approach, imputing the interests of domestic partners, adult children, siblings, parents, or members of an employee’s household. While there is a consensus that governments should regulate the financial interests of their employees, there is not a consensus about how broadly or narrowly to define those interests.

Keywords: government ethics, government employee restrictions, executive branch, conflicts of interest

Suggested Citation

Clark, Kathleen, An Overview of Government Ethics Standards (April 2012). Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-04-09. Available at SSRN: or

Kathleen Clark (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
314-935-4081 (Phone)
314-935-6493 (Fax)

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