Christopher Swartz '11 joined the federal Office of Government Ethics after graduation. Now he's helping shape the ethical foundation of the United States.
To Christopher Swartz, OGE provided an opportunity to quietly perform a valuable public service: Ensuring the integrity of government decisions by seeing to it that executive-branch appointees and nominees follow the ethical rules governing conflicts of interest. Swartz had spent the summers after his first and second years of law school as a law clerk at OGE and, as he recalls, “That’s what really stoked the idea of working for the government in the public interest.” So when he had an opportunity to join the agency as an assistant counsel after getting his JD from New England Law in 2011, he jumped at the chance.
While he has many duties at OGE, Swartz explains, each is aimed at seeing to it that the overall health of the government ethics program is maintained. That responsibility includes making sure that appointees and nominees are informed about ethical requirements and then conducting reviews and analyses of the financial disclosure reports that they are required to submit. In doing so, Swartz assists the agency in performing the job it is charged with doing: guiding individuals in how to comply with the rules—not conducting investigations or meting out penalties, which is the responsibility of agencies and the Department of Justice.
“What we do … is analyze [financial disclosure forms] for potential conflicts of interests under federal ethics laws,” he says, “and then we take steps to ensure that those potential conflicts are effectively mitigated before the individual comes into that position.”
His strong sense of commitment is apparent when Swartz talks about his work at OGE and the agency’s work in striving to provide good government. In addition to his duties regarding the financial disclosure reports, Swartz also works on regulations that set up the compliance standards. “These really establish a uniform set of conduct expectations for employees throughout the executive branch—the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, every cabinet-level agency, regulatory agencies, and a slew of smaller entities.”
Once the regulations are in place, Swartz says, OGE is responsible for making sure that executive branch ethics offices have a uniform understanding of what they mean in practice. In all, OGE is connected to approximately 4,500 ethics officials throughout the executive branch. While those officials are not directly responsible to OGE—they’re employees of their respective agencies—Swartz says there is a clear understanding that they may contact OGE at any time for guidance.
To Swartz, this breadth of reach is what he finds particularly enjoyable about his work. “It’s given me the ability to work with pretty much every agency that exists out there,” he says. “The idea that decisions should be made free of conflicts of interest, free of bias or prejudice, is not something that is a standalone concept. It applies every day to every individual who operates under the aegis of the United States government. Questions about application, about interpretation, arise across the executive branch. We may get a question from the Department of Energy one day about a new energy-related program and then get a question from the Education Department the next day dealing with educational grants and how the [ethics laws] apply in this or that situation. You get questions that deal with some of the most cutting-edge policy questions that are coming out.”
In addition to his broad job duties within OGE, Swartz has had the opportunity to actually work inside the White House during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Within OGE, staffers are assigned to be “desk officers” to serve as points of contact for specific agencies and offices. Swartz was appointed to be the desk officer for the White House and the Office of the Vice President in 2013, and spent one month at the beginning of Obama’s second term in the Office of the White House Counsel. Then, from October 2016 to March 2017he again served as a White House legal counsel to span the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.
“In my view, what the Office of Government Ethics does and what my role is have not changed,” he says. “The ethics program is essentially a nonpartisan program. The importance of what we do day today is to ensure the integrity of government decisions by ensuring that those decisions are done in a procedurally just way, for principles that are not specific to the individual who is doing it. What we ultimately want, regardless of the administration or whichever party is in power, is that decisions are made for the right reasons, for a policy reason on the merits.”
Swartz is happy with his job and encourages current law students with an interest in government service to look into working for ethics agencies—not only at the federal level, but at the state and local levels as well. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a type of law that they don’t teach in law school that much. And it’s a type of law that goes right to the heart of what it means to live in a democratic republic.”
The opinions expressed in this article are the interviewee’s own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics or the United States government. This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 edition of New England Law's alumni magazine, The Bridge. You can read more law school alumni success stories here.