New warning on ethics laws

When the issue of how best to ensure ethics in government service first came up in the Carter years, public opinion - as measured by polling - was clear about one thing: Tough laws were necessary to prevent conflicts of interest between federal officials and business firms which they might be required to regulate. The administration, largely reacting to evidence of corporate abuses uncovered in the Watergate years, put stiff regulations in place, including the landmark Ethics in Government Act of 1978.

Unfortunately, there is now cause for genuine concern about whether such restrictions are being adequately enforced.

According to a report by the General Accounting Office, at least 92 officials of the US Interior Department, several of them in key positions, may have ''questionable'' financial interests in firms that hold federal mineral leases. What is worrisome is that the officials are in Interior's Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some 417 million acres of public land and more than a billion acres of outer continental shelf. The Interior Department has been vigorous in pushing development of public lands.

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In fairness, the GAO report does not accuse any department employees of specific wrongdoing or even actual - as opposed to potential - conflicts of interest. But what the report does spell out is that there is ''no indication that the interests had been thoroughly researched to determine whether they were proper.''

That, of course, is required on the part of Interior officials under the terms of federal ethics statutes. And, it might be noted, such an examination is also required for other federal departments and agencies.

Are the various ethics-in-government regulations being enforced by the Interior Department and other agencies? To ask that question is not to fault the Reagan administration, or even any agency. Such a question could be asked of any administration. But it is almost a decade since the various Watergate-related business scandals, usually involving firms dealing in overseas commerce, first came to light, and there is always the possibility that with the passage of years, the tough ethics laws may be overlooked by agencies.

Business as usual is not enough for government. Federal agencies might well take the new GAO report as a jumping-off point and take a hard look at their own departments to ensure, as required by law, that conflicts of interest are not occurring.

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