Pass the coffee, hold the beer: New do’s and don’ts for accepting gifts

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, but federal employees will soon have reason to be more careful.

For the first time since 1992, the Office of Government Ethics updated its gift acceptance policies for federal employees in a new proposed rule.

The general rule of thumb would still apply: Federal employees can accept an unsolicited gift worth $20 or less. An employee cannot, however, accept gifts from one person that exceed $50 in one calendar year.

Generally, gifts based on a family or personal relationship — rather than an employee’s position in government — are OK.

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But OGE describes a scenario where social interaction online makes that rule more complicated:

A Peace Corps employee, for example, uses social media to keep in touch with friends, coworkers and other processional contacts, including one person who works as a contractor for the Peace Corps. The two occasionally communicate online to talk about contract work. The contractor offers the Peace Corps employee a pair of concert tickets, worth more than the standard $20 limit.

“Although the employee and the individual are connected through social media, the circumstances do not demonstrate that the gift was clearly motivated by a personal relationship, rather than the position of the employee,” OGE wrote.

The employee cannot accept the gift.

And the list of exceptions, which OGE detailed in 14 pages,  grows from that point.

For example, employees can accept “modest items of food and drink.” Coffee and donuts are OK. But hold the beer or expensive cocktail.

Federal employees who give a speech or present agency information at a sponsored event or conference can typically attend for free. But employees can’t attend a party free of charge, even if they believe they might discuss official matters with other attendees, because the agency did not assign them to present government information.

Feds who present or give a speech at an industry conference can accept a meal, as long as it’s open to all who presented and hosted by the event’s sponsor.

“OGE believes that these meals are often beneficial to the agency because the agency employee is able to interact with other presenters, receive instructions and hear about program goals or changes,” the proposed rule said. “OGE believes that where a meal is provided to all other presenters, the meal does not constitute a separate gift for the personal benefit of the employee.”

OGE also added a few suggestions designed to help federal employees make the decision as to whether they should accept a particular gift.

One encourages employees to consider whether someone might question the employee’s integrity if he or she accepted a gift, even if accepting the gift itself might not violate any rule.

For example, OGE suggests federal employees think about:

  • Whether the gift has a high market value
  • Whether accepting the gift might make the employee feel a sense of obligation to the gift-giver
  • Whether someone might question the employee’s impartiality

OGE consulted with the Justice Department and Office of Personnel Management, as well as some agency ethics officials, to draft the proposed rule.

Comments are open until Jan. 26.