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Finding Common Threads In Trump Cabinet Members' 'Unethical Behavior'


Let's look now at a scandal in the Trump administration that has not made a lot of headlines. It involves several Cabinet officials and the ways they've spent taxpayer money. NPR's Peter Overby has our story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The latest Cabinet member in the hot seat is Ben Carson, former brain surgeon, Republican primary rival to Trump, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He's in trouble over custom-made furniture for his office - a dining table, 10 chairs and a hutch, price tag $31,000. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him sort of at last Friday's briefing.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: On Secretary Carson, the order that you referenced was canceled, and they're looking for another option that's much more responsible with taxpayer dollars.

OVERBY: Trump has already fired one Cabinet secretary, Tom Price of Health and Human Services. He took charter flights costing nearly half a million dollars.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was disappointed because I didn't like it cosmetically or otherwise.

OVERBY: But ethics problems like this actually aren't so rare.

ELIZABETH SANDERS: I happen to have a list of administrative scandals going back to Harry Truman. And I can tell you this is really not new.

OVERBY: Elizabeth Sanders is a political scientist at Cornell University - and no relation to the press secretary.

E. SANDERS: Is Trump worse than others? I think he's different because the scandals are more related to the incompetence and venality, one might say, of people that he brought in.

OVERBY: And Professor Sanders points to Ronald Reagan, who, like Trump, set out to shrink government. But after a few scandals like those happening now, Reagan changed his approach.

E. SANDERS: He appointed people who were not only competent but who had experience and who didn't have personal interests in conflict with the agencies they were heading.

OVERBY: One common thread of these current scandals is a sense of privilege. Federal officials are supposed to fly coach whenever possible, not first class and certainly not charter. And they're not allowed to bill the government for pleasure trips as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin tried to do. This leads to the other common thread - a tendency to say, my staff did it. Here's Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, on CBS' "The Takeout." He was explaining how his security detail made him fly first class.


SCOTT PRUITT: I have a responsibility to listen to those individuals that are charged with the obligation to keep me safe and keep employees at the agency safe.

OVERBY: And the way Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained it to Politico, it was his staff who deemed a military plane necessary for his honeymoon to Europe.


STEVEN MNUCHIN: They put in a request to consider the use of an aircraft not so much just for flying, but effectively it was a portable office.

OVERBY: Ethics consultant Susan Liautaud said the Cabinet officials might have misunderstood the level of public tolerance.

SUSAN LIAUTAUD: I'm wondering if some of them aren't a bit surprised by the very strong reaction from the media and the public.

OVERBY: Liautaud said poor ethical conduct is highly contagious within an organization.

LIAUTAUD: The more dangerous part is that not only does unethical behavior spread, but it mutates into other forms of unethical behavior.

OVERBY: So what starts out as a simple transgression can lead to doctoring emails or lying to investigators or threatening whistleblowers, all of which have happened as the travel and spending scandals have come under scrutiny. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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