WASHINGTON — Thousands of federal government officials across the executive branch reported owning or trading stocks that stood to rise or fall with decisions made by their agencies, a Wall Street Journal investigation found.
More than 2,600 officials at agencies from the Commerce Department to the Treasury Department, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, disclosed stock investments in companies that were lobbying their agencies for favorable policies. That amounts to more than one in five senior federal employees across 50 federal agencies reviewed by the Journal, is said in an article published Oct. 11.
An official at the Environmental Protection Agency reported purchases of oil and gas stocks. The Food and Drug Administration improperly let an official own dozens of food and drug stocks on its “no-buy” list. A Defense Department official bought stock in a company before it won new business from the Pentagon, according to the report.
Title 18, section 208 of the U.S. Code, a criminal statute, prohibits employees in the executive branch from participating in a government matter that will have a direct and predictable effect on their financial interests, Federal Times has reported.
Such conflict-of-interests can include insider trading, a hot-button issue that the U.S. House of Representatives has grappled with in seeking to reform the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act.
The STOCK Act, by some experts’ estimation, is the closest the government has come thus far in targeting stock trading by members of Congress. Then-President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2012, amending the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and making explicit that the prohibition against insider trading would apply to members.
The Journal said it analyzed more than 31,000 financial-disclosure forms for about 12,000 senior career employees, political staff and presidential appointees. The review spans 2016 through 2021 and includes data on about 850,000 financial assets and more than 315,000 trades in stocks, bonds and funds by the officials, their spouses or children.
While the Ethics in Government Act, passed on the heels of the Watergate scandal, mandated that senior employees of the executive branch submit public financial disclosures, the vast majority aren’t available online or readily accessible. The review amounts to the most comprehensive analysis of investments held by executive-branch officials, who have wide but largely unseen influence over public policy, the Journal said.
Among the findings:
— While the government was ramping up scrutiny of big technology companies, more than 1,800 federal officials reported owning or trading at least one of four major tech stocks: Meta Platforms’s Facebook, Alphabet’s Google, Apple and Amazon.com.
— Dozens of officials at agencies including the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department reported trading stock in companies shortly before their departments announced enforcement actions.
— More than 200 senior EPA officials, nearly one in three, reported investments in companies that were lobbying the agency.
— At the Defense Department, officials in the office of the secretary reported collectively owning between $1.2 million and $3.4 million of stock in aerospace and defense companies on average each year examined by the Journal. Some held stock in Chinese companies while the U.S. was considering blacklisting the companies.
Not every member of the executive branch is a public filer. Most that are hold high-level leadership positions. In addition to new entrant, annual, and termination reports, public filers must also report transactions of certain securities as they occur so that ethics officials can evaluate potential red flags.