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Former teachers union official accused of violating ethics pledge

A former teachers union official-turned-federal-government-official allegedly violated the Biden Administration’s Ethics Pledge and other relevant federal ethics regulations because of continued interactions with her former employer, the National Education Association (NEA).

A watchdog organization filed the ethics complaint against the deputy chief of staff under Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Donna Harris-Aikens. Protect the Public’s Trust, a federal watchdog organization, noted that Harris-Aikens worked for the NEA for fourteen years and her most recent role was a Senior Director of Education and Policy Practice.

The Biden Administration Ethics Pledge specifically bans political appointees from communicating with their former employer in official communications, such as emails, but Harris-Aikens “was in regular contact with officials at the NEA from virtually her first moment at the Department.” Protect the Public’s Trust discovered this information from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which uncovered direct, official communications between Harris-Aikens, the NEA, and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Harris-Aikens directly contacted her former boss, NEA President Becky Pringle, and AFT President Randi Weingarten to schedule a phone call on school reopening policies in late January 2021. Several weeks later, in February, Harris-Aikens sent both NEA and AFT a copy of policy documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about school reopening guidance. These dates of communication align with allegations that CDC coordinated policies with teachers unions and these “unions had heavily influenced the CDC’s guidance on reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic” in 2021.

In response to the ethics complaint, the Department of Education defended Harris-Aikens, “Donna Harris-Aikens is a committed public service professional who has dedicated her career to serving students, families, and educators… She is a vital leader at the Department, with deep experience and an exemplary record of service.”

Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.