An attorney with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District recently earned an award for her efforts to make federal ethics rules more understandable to District employees.
Traci Cunningham, a TAM assistant district counsel, received the E. Manning Seltzer award from USACE headquarters. The award, named after the Chief Legal Advisor to the Chief of Engineers and General Counsel of the Corps from 1956 to 1977, “recognizes an attorney who has made one or more special contributions to the Corps legal service mission through the development of a legal theory, a legal management innovation or practice, or outstanding performance in solving a legal or management problem.”
With additional ethics training requirements in 2020, as well as a Presidential election, the year proved to be a challenging one for ethics attorneys. Cunningham realized she was seeing a lot of the same questions multiple times and devised a way to address them in a fun and engaging manner through a “Dear Abby,” advice style column she named “Dear Ethics Counselor.”
TAM’s Chief of Counsel Rob McKenney said her efforts were a great way to teach employees about an often confusing topic.
"Traci has recognized that it can be challenging to make ethics engaging. Through her Dear Ethics Counselor newsletters, she has developed a creative way to address common ethics situations with District employees. In the process, she is helping to improve ethics awareness on a wide variety of topics relevant to our employees' work at TAM,” McKenney said.
Cunningham said that almost all of her column topics are based on actual questions she gets although she sometimes exaggerates them for humor and to keep things engaging.
“Some of the most frequent questions we get are about outside employment. Certain types have to be reported. Those rules are relatively straight forward but I tell people it’s always best to check with your legal office, even if you think you’re in the clear,” Cunningham said.
Not checking with their legal team is one of the most frequent issues she sees and one that’s readily available to keep people out of trouble.
“One of the best things that people can do to avoid ethics issues is to simply use the resources available to them. There are a lot more things that may require a review than people think. Things such as outside speaking invitations or crowd-funding fundraisers, said Cunningham. Someone might get sick and you want to help them so you start a “Go Fund Me” page. That’s completely understandable but if that person is your supervisor or you supervise people who are contributing, that can lead to ethics violations.”
Asked to choose one ethics area where she thinks there’s a lot of confusion, Cunningham cited nepotism.
“Everyone knows you can’t hire your spouse, son or daughter,” said Cunningham. “That’s pretty cut and dried, but there are a whole lot of other rules and areas associated with that. That’s one of the reasons I thought to do the column. It’s a way to give real world examples that people can relate to.”
Cunningham said she was happy to be recognized but even happier to be able to use humor in a job that doesn’t often require it.