FCIC Had Change of Heart About Secret Ethics Policy?

Every member of the federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has signed an “ethics policy” that the commission refuses to reveal—or at least, that's the way things stood until late Friday.

Earlier this week, a reporter for the Washington Examiner began asking the FCIC, which is due to issue a report on the causes of the financial crisis later this year, about whether some commissioners or staffers might have conflicts of interest that could impede the investigation.

He was told that any conflicts would fall under the FCIC’s ethics policy. (Full disclosure: my brother, Tim Carney, covers lobbyists for the Washington Examiner. He was not the reporter making these inquiries, however.)

And there’s the catch: That ethics policy was, in effect, a state secret.

FCIC refused to give the Washington Examiner—or CNBC.com—a copy of the policy. A spokesman for the FCIC said it was drafted by the general counsel, Gary Cohen. Cohen is a corporate lawyer who is currently “on leave” for Sidley Austin, one of the world’s largest law firms.

That was then, this is now. Three hours after CNBC reported on the FCIC's secret ethics policy, the commission announced that it was publishing the policy on its web site.

“We decided it was appropriate to make public the Commission’s strong ethics policy for Commissioners and staff," the spokesman said.

'Nondisclosure ... for Eternity'

When pressed for details of the policy before it was posted online, an FCIC spokesman said that it was based on similar policies developed for the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission, which will surely rile up the conspiracy theorists. The emphasis of the policy is apparently on secrecy.

“It requires nondisclosure of confidential information from every staff member for eternity,” spokesman Tucker Warren said. He described the policy as “a very robust and stringent policy.”

Warren went on to point out that the statute creating FCIC did not even require it to adopt an ethics policy. We’re meant to be reassured by the fact that FCIC voluntarily adopted a secret ethics policy?

And while the ethics policy is now out in the open, a lot of information about the FCIC remains a secret. FCIC also refused to give CNBC.com a list of its staff members, many of which are on loan to the commission from other government agencies, such as the Federal Reserve. That information, which could help shed light on why the commission feels its $8 million budget is too low or why it is reportedly embroiled in internal disputes, is still being kept secret.

The irony that FCIC, which recently cajoled the Managed Fund Association to turn over the contact information for thousands of hedge fund managers, is operating so secretively seems to be lost on its members. If daylight is the best disinfectant, why is FCIC closing the curtains on its own operations?

More from John Carney: