- The executive branch’s top government ethics lawyer didn’t disclose all his finances on time, records show.
- The officer is responsible for signing off on financial disclosures and for setting rules on how to submit them.
- He said he made some mistakes and corrected them as soon as he realized.
The top attorney for the federal government’s executive branch ethics office failed to file timely reports about his finances — an apparent violation of a transparency law, according to records reviewed by Insider.
The attorney, Office of Government Ethics General Counsel David Apol, missed deadlines to report at least 12 different bond transactions since 2015. In two instances representing five transactions, he filed his federally mandated reports several months past deadline.
Improperly reporting purchases and sales of bonds or stocks is a violation of the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act. Tardy disclosures are a common problem in the legislative branch, where members of Congress and their senior staff often miss reporting deadlines.
In his government role, Apol has greater expertise with the law than most. His responsibilities include reviewing financial disclosures and writing ethics guidance for nearly 3 million federal employees, including those who work in the White House.
“I made some mistakes filling out my forms and when I discovered them I corrected them,” Apol told Insider.
Apol did not trade individual stocks over the reported period, so his holdings do not raise questions about conflicts of interest — an issue that’s been widespread in other corners of the executive branch during the Trump and Biden administrations, according to recent Wall Street Journal reporting.
Instead, Apol’s trades involve several municipal bonds, as well as diversified mutual funds. The bonds vary in value, with some ranging between $100,001 to $250,000. Officials are only required to report transactions in broad ranges.
Apol paid a fine for a late disclosure in 2020, certified documents show. He wrote a note in his 2020 annual report saying that when he was reviewing his finances for the year that he realized he had accidentally omitted a bond purchase he was supposed to report more than eight months earlier, in 2019.
Apol said an asset manager conducts the bond transactions without his input and then sends him a monthly report that he then uses to publicly report his transactions.
Under STOCK Act rules, federal workers have to report their transactions 30 days to 45 days after they occur, depending on when they find out about them. They are only required to pay a $200 fine if another 30 days have passed without any reporting. Most of Apol’s late reports wouldn’t trigger a fine.
One disclosure that did was from 2017, when Apol was acting director of the Office of Government Ethics during the Trump administration. The disclosure contained four transactions that were between three to four months overdue. Apol told Insider he paid a $200 fine.
His 2022 annual report also contained a note saying that he had not noticed the sale and purchase of two mutual funds that should have been included in his 2021 annual report. Such financial holdings are different from bonds in that they’re only required to be reported annually, rather than soon after they occur.
“When the referees themselves don’t follow the rules it sends a bad signal that the rules might not really matter,” Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, told Insider. “People who are in charge of ethics enforcement should be the No. 1 champions of fully complying with the letter and spirit of the law and all relevant regulations.”
The Office of Government Ethics wouldn’t comment on the reports.
“OGE is committed to transparency and citizen oversight of government,” the agency said in a statement to Insider. “However, OGE does not respond to questions about specific individuals.”
Apol oversaw the most recent overhaul of the executive branch’s financial disclosure rules, which were released in 2018.
In a November 2022 public letter, Apol called the financial disclosure requirements “a vital part of the ethics program.” He vowed to make the disclosure system “more efficient, transparent, and easy for filers to use and the public to access.”
The current director of the roughly 80-person Office of Government Ethics is Emory Rounds III, and his five-year term expires next year. Apol could be next in line to replace Rounds at the helm of the agency if President Joe Biden were to appoint him and the Senate confirms the nomination.
Apol is a career government employee who has spent more than three decades at different government agencies, including as counselor for ethics at the Department of Labor during the George HW Bush administration. He first joined the Office of Government Ethics during the George W. Bush administration and was in the White House Counsel’s Office during the Clinton administration.
As OGE’s acting director, one of Apol’s responsibilities was to certify then-President Donald Trump’s financial disclosures. In 2018, Apol sent Trump’s disclosures to the Department of Justice over an omission in the then-president’s 2017 report.
The New York Times reported in 2017 that Apol clashed with colleagues at the Office of Government Ethics about how to interpret conflict-of-interest laws.
Proper filings of financial disclosures are a problem across government
Insider and other news outlets have since last year identified 77 members of Congress and counted at least 182 senior congressional staffers who were late reporting their stock transactions.
Their excuses have ranged from oversights, to clerical errors, to inattentive accountants.
While congressional rules stipulate STOCK Act offenders are supposed to pay a minimum $200 fine the first time this happens — and incur higher fines if it continues — the consequences for violating the STOCK Act are generally minimal, inconsistently applied, and not publicly recorded, Insider has found through its “Conflicted Congress” investigation.
The reporting requirements in the law are supposed to help the public assess whether their representatives can benefit financially from the votes they cast or the legislation they introduce.
Insider found sweeping examples of members of Congress who bought and sold stocks in companies they can influence through legislation or committee seats. For instance, a growing number of lawmakers are trading the stock of defense contractors while considering military spending proposals.
The issue goes even beyond the legislative branch. The Wall Street Journal reported that federal officials or their spouses have been trading stocks in companies their agencies oversee, and another investigation revealed that federal judges traded stocks in companies over which they were hearing cases.
Congress this year discussed changes to the STOCK Act and the US House even held a hearing following the publication of “Conflicted Congress.” But the House promptly aborted a vote on a bill drafted by Committee on House Administration Chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California that contained what critics called a massive loophole and was written without the input of members who’d been pushing the idea for months.
It’s unlikely that either chamber will vote on a measure before the end of this Congress. Biden has effectively been silent on the stock-ban issue, to the disappointment of good-government groups.
Short of an outright ban, the Committee on House Administration may decide to improve ethics training for federal lawmakers. Reforms could also include better enforcement or higher penalties, Scherb said.