Monday, December 7, 2015

Have Yourself a Bureaucratic Christmas!

Lest anyone think I'm trying to start a war or something, let me remind you that "Christmas" (spelled exactly thus) is a legal and recognized federal holiday ever since President Grant. I just wanted to share a memo that came by email, well, just because:

To:                   All Departmental Employees

From:               __________, Designated Agency Ethics Official

Subject:           Ethics Guidance for the Holiday Season

I would like to take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a very merry and safe holiday season. Each year at this time many of us participate in holiday celebrations and activities occurring in and out of the office. While this is a time of celebration and joy, we must still be aware that there are ethics rules and regulations which apply to all Federal employees. As a result, the Departmental Ethics Office generally receives a number of questions from employees on the appropriateness of certain holiday activities.

Therefore, in anticipation of the more common questions received by the Departmental Ethics Office, I am providing you with a summary of the ethics rules governing various holiday activities.

Acceptance of Gifts

1.  Gifts from non-Federal sources

As a general rule, Department of the Interior employees may not, directly or indirectly, solicit or accept a gift from a prohibited source (e.g., a person or organization that has or seeks business dealings with the Department, is regulated by the Department, or could be affected by the performance or nonperformance of an employee’s official duties); or given because of the employee’s official position.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, employees may accept gifts from a prohibited source having a market value of $20 or less per occasion, provided that the aggregate market value of individual gifts received from any one entity does not exceed $50 in a calendar year.

Employees may never accept cash, however. Gift cards are considered to be a cash gift if they can be used like cash at multiple retailers, such as a Visa or MasterCard gift card. However, gift cards that can be used at one retailer (even if it has multiple locations) are not considered cash.

Employees may accept gifts given under certain circumstances which make it clear that the gift is motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship rather than the employee’s official position. When the donor of the gift is both a friend/family member and a prohibited source, it is appropriate to seek specific advice from an ethics counselor as to whether the gift should be accepted. In making this determination, the ethics counselor will look to the history of the relationship and who is paying for the gift (the individual or the company).  Where a personal relationship develops from an ongoing work relationship, it can be very difficult to clearly establish that the gift is not being given because of the employee’s official position. Therefore, an employee bears a considerable burden in establishing that a gift is based on a personal relationship rather than the employee’s Government position. 

There are other exceptions to the gift rules. For additional information about exceptions to the general prohibitions regarding gifts from non-Federal sources, employees should refer to the Departmental Ethics Office website.

In addition to the general gift rules, political appointees are subject to the lobbyist gift ban contained in the ethics pledge. I recommend that appointees contact the Departmental Ethics Office at __________ for additional guidance on the lobbyist gift ban.

2.  Gifts between employees

Generally, the gift rules prohibit an employee from:

*   Giving, donating to, or soliciting contributions for, a gift to an official superior; and

*   Accepting a gift from another employee who receives less pay.

There are exceptions to this rule, such as when the two employees are not in a subordinate-official superior relationship and there is a personal relationship between the two employees that would justify the gift. Another example of an exception is an official subordinate-superior relationship and it is ending due to retirement, resignation, or transfer.

There also is an exception for occasional gifts given to an official superior or accepted from a subordinate or other employee receiving less pay, if the gift is not cash and has an aggregate market value of $10 or less per occasion. Gift cards are considered to be a cash gift if they can be used like cash at multiple retailers, such as a Visa or MasterCard gift card. However, gift cards that can be used at one retailer (even if it has multiple locations) are not considered cash.

For more information on the rules and exceptions for gift giving, employees are encouraged to refer to the Ethics Guide for DOI Employees, located on the Departmental Ethics Office website.

Soliciting Contributions for Holiday Parties

Employees may solicit voluntary contributions of nominal amounts from fellow employees and contractors working alongside federal employees in the office on an occasional basis for items such as food and refreshments to be shared. The voluntary contribution from a contractor employee must come from the contractor, not their employer. It is important to note that a contribution is not voluntary unless it is made in an amount determined by the contributing employee. Regulations issued by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics require a statement that an employee may choose to contribute less, or not at all, to accompany any recommendation of an amount to be contributed.

Remember, such contributions must be voluntary, and an employee who declines to contribute should not be excluded from a holiday celebration that is held in the office during business hours. Contact your ethics counselor for additional assistance in this regard.

Business-Related Parties and Related Events

During the holiday season, some employees may be invited as guests to parties or related events that are sponsored by persons or organizations that have or plan to have business dealings with the Department. In such cases, employees may attend the party or related event if:

*   They have the approval of their supervisor; and

*   The gift of food, beverage, and entertainment does not exceed $20 in value for each event.  (Subject to the $50 aggregate limit on gifts from a given source in a calendar year.)

Employees may also accept the gift of free attendance to a widely attended holiday event, with prior supervisory and ethics approval (documented on Form DI-1958), when it has been determined that the employee’s attendance at the event will be in the interest of the Department because it will further the Department’s programs and operations. An event is considered widely attended if it is expected that a large number of persons will attend and that persons with a diversity of interests will be present. For example, the event is open to members from throughout a given industry or profession or those in attendance represent a wide range of views on a given matter. The Form DI-1958 may be downloaded from the Departmental Ethics Office forms page.

Ethics Counselors approving an employee’s Form DI-1958 should ensure that the employee’s acceptance of a gift of free attendance to a widely attended event from a non-sponsor of the event does not exceed $375 and that more than 100 people are expected to attend the event. 

As noted above, in addition to the general gift rules, political appointees are subject to the lobbyist gift ban contained in the ethics pledge. I recommend that appointees contact the Departmental Ethics Office at_________ for additional guidance on the lobbyist gift ban.

Special Issues Relating to Contractor and other Non-Governmental Personnel

While employees working side-by-side with contractors in the Federal workplace has become increasingly common, it is important to remember that contract employees are not subject to the same ethics rules as are Federal employees. Federal employees must maintain an appropriate relationship with contract personnel even during the holiday season.

Contract personnel must check with their contract representative as to their leave associated with attendance at an official Government social function. The Government may not be billed for the hours a contractor spends at a social gathering.

Federal employees should remember that contractors are considered a prohibited source for purposes of the ethics rules and therefore all applicable regulations concerning the employees’ interaction with a prohibited source, as mentioned above, should be followed. In addition, non-Governmental personnel such as grantees, partners, detailees from state governments, and other invited guests may attend Government social functions as long as there is no additional cost to the Government.

Subject to the considerations discussed above, contractor personnel may participate in Government official social functions. Contractor personnel may be allowed to voluntarily participate in gift exchanges, however, due to the limitations regarding gifts from prohibited sources and gifts between employees detailed in this memo, the Ethics Office recommends that gift exchanges involving contractors be limited to $10. Just as government employees must use personal funds to purchase gifts for office gift exchanges, contractor personnel also must use personal (rather than corporate) funds for office gift exchanges.

For any additional guidance regarding ethics-related matters, please contact the Departmental Ethics Office at ___________

"Merry Christmas, ya filthy buffalo!"

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