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Ethics, gifts and the holiday season

Posted 12/14/2012   Updated 12/14/2012 Email story   Print story


by Courtesy Air University and 42nd Air Base Wing legal office

12/14/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Al  -- The holiday season is traditionally a time of parties, receptions and exchanging gifts. However, even at the holiday season, standards of conduct apply. To avoid unknowingly violating the standards, a brief summary of the applicable rules is set out below.

General rule: Federal personnel may not accept gifts offered because of their official positions or offered by a prohibited source. A prohibited source is anyone, including contractors, who:

· Seeks official action by the employee's agency.
· Does business or seeks to do business with the employee's agency.
· Conducts activities regulated by the employee's agency.
· Has interests that may be substantially affected by the employee's performance of duty.
· Is an organization composed of members described above.

There are several exceptions. Federal personnel may accept gifts, other than cash, not exceeding $20, as long as the total amount of gifts from that source does not exceed $50 for the year.

Federal personnel may accept gifts, even from a contractor employee, if given because of a bona fide personal relationship, such personal gifts paid for by the contractor employee rather than the contractor.

Employees may generally attend an open house or reception, and accept any gift of refreshments, if it is a widely attended gathering and the employee's supervisor determines that it is in the agency's interest that the employee attends.

Personnel should talk to an ethics counselor prior to attending an event to determine if it meets the widely attended gathering requirements.

Federal personnel may accept invitations, even from contractors, that are open to the public.
Employees may accept invitations offered to a group or class that is not related to government employment, for example, if the building owner where your office is located throws a reception for all of the tenants of the building.

Refreshments consisting of soft drinks, coffee, pastries or similar refreshments not constituting a meal may be accepted since they are not considered to be a gift.

If an outside business or other relationship results in attendance at an event, the federal employee may attend. For example, a federal employee's spouse works at a Contractor, Inc. The federal employee may accompany the spouse to the Contractor, Inc., employee's holiday party since the invitation is to the spouse as a Contractor, Inc., employee, and not to the federal employee because of his or her position.

Federal personnel may attend social events sponsored by non-prohibited sources if no one is charged admission.

The general rule is supervisors may not solicit or accept gifts from subordinates or federal personnel who receive less pay. But during holidays, which occur on an occasional basis, supervisors may accept gifts, other than cash, worth $10 or less from a subordinate.

Supervisors also may accept food and refreshments shared in the office and may share in the expenses of an office party.

If a subordinate is invited to a social event at the supervisor's residence, the subordinate may give the supervisor a hospitality gift of the type and value customarily given on such an occasion.
Please note that there are no legal restrictions on gifts given to peers or subordinates. However, common sense and good taste should apply.

Finally, keep in mind contractor employees may have different rules, including unique ethics requirements, imposed by their employers. For instance, a contractor employee cannot be paid under a federal contract while they are attending a holiday party during duty hours.

Contractor employees may also have different limits on what gifts they can accept and may be prohibited entirely by their company from receiving gifts from federal personnel. Contractor employees should check with their employer to make sure they are following any applicable restrictions.

This guidance only highlights common questions and does not cover every situation. If you are unsure, contact the ethics counselor at the Air University legal office at 953-6429 or 42nd Air Base Wing legal office at 953-2786.                                             

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