Postal Service quietly taps new ethics officer

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The U.S. Postal Service has named a new top ethics officer in the aftermath of a series of embarrassing disclosures about a former key executive at the agency who was permitted to earn more than a quarter-million dollars in outside income and who was accused of steering contracts to former business associates.

The appointment of Helen Grant as the Postal Service’s designated ethics officer wasn’t formally announced, but it was made clear recently when her name replaced that of Mary Anne Gibbons, the Postal Service’s general counsel, as the top postal ethics official on the U.S. Office of Government Ethics website.

The move was made months after a report by the Postal Services office of inspector general looked into the activities of Robert Bernstock, the former top marketing officer for the Postal Service. Earning more than $200,000 per year, he was permitted to hold several outside corporate jobs, and investigators said he used postal resources in connection with his private business ventures.

“In the aftermath of the Bernstock investigation, it was decided to add an additional full-time ethics executive and increase the staff and budget,” postal spokesman Gerald J. McKiernan said.

“The goal was to ensure that adequate resources were devoted to reinforcing and maintaining our ethical culture and to continue sending a strong message to all of our employees, stakeholders and customers on the dedication of the Postal Service to the principles of ethical conduct and ethical business decision-making,” he said.

Ms. Grant was portrayed in the report as sounding alarms about Mr. Bernstock’s activities. Indeed, after an inquiry by The Washington Times in December 2009 about his outside business dealings, she moved to ensure that he filed an amended financial-disclosure form, according to records. At the time, Ms. Grant was managing counsel of the Postal Service’s civil practice, who handled ethics matters.

She told investigators that she took a firm position on what Mr. Bernstock “could and couldn’t do” and prepared a letter for Anthony Vegliante, the Postal Service’s chief of human resources, to give to Mr. Bernstock.

Asked to comment on the letter, Mr. Vegliante said at the time that he did not issue the letter to Mr. Bernstock, telling the inspector general's office, “I don’t give ethics advice,” records show.

“According to Vegliante, there would not be any written expectations of employment given to someone at Bernstock’s level,” a memo summarizing Mr. Vegliante’s interview with investigators stated. “Bernstock is subject to ethical limitations, which were discussed with him, so a letter would not make any difference, according to Vegliante,” the memo said.

Mr. Bernstock was not charged with any wrongdoing and left the Postal Service earlier this year to pursue other opportunities.

Mrs. Gibbons, who remains the Postal Services general counsel, told investigators during the Bernstock inquiry that she thought there were two sets of rules governing the so-called “de minimis” policies on the use of postal equipment for outside activities: one rule for hourly employees and another for executive employees such as Mr. Bernstock.

Gibbons said, for example, that Bernstock had the ability to conduct nonpostal activities from his office behind a closed door and would not encounter a perception problem because other employees would not know that he was engaged in activities not related to the Postal Service,” the report stated.

But in the inspector general’s report, an investigator said only one standard, applying to all postal employees, could be found. That policy prohibits the use of Postal Service equipment for private business activities.

Mrs. Gibbons also said Mr. Bernstock’s use of staff to conduct private business was “unacceptable and should not have happened.”

Still, the report included statements by Mr. Bernstock saying he had asked Mrs. Gibbons in June 2009 about using his staff on private business activities. He told the inspector general's office that Mrs. Gibbons “covered her ears” and said she “didn’t want to talk about the past.”

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