OGE’s new guidance for accepting gifts pushes feds to reach for ‘higher standard’

For the first time in nearly 25 years, federal employees have new guidelines for accepting gifts from outside sources. The general rule of thumb still applies, but the Office of Government Ethics wants federal employees to reach for a higher standard.

The final rule, which OGE published Nov. 18, updates gift acceptance policies that haven’t been changed since 1992.

Federal employees may generally accept an unsolicited gift worth $20 or less from an outside source in most situations. But OGE suggested that workers consider whether accepting the gift would question their integrity or impartiality.

The agency lists a few factors that federal employees should think about before accepting an otherwise permissible gift:

  • Whether the gift has a high market value.
  • Whether the timing of the gift creates the appearance that the donor wants to influence a specific government action.
  • Whether the gift-giver has interests that could be affected by the “performance or nonperformance of the employee’s official duties.”
  • Whether accepting the gift would give the donor “disproportionate access.”

The new ethics guidelines combine official rules and a handful of the 14 general principles of government ethics.

“This blending of values-based and rules-based approaches delivers the best of two worlds,” OGE Director Walter Shaub wrote in a message announcing the final rule. “As always, employees must follow the rules prohibiting certain gifts, but we are now also asking employees to reach for the highest standard.”

For example, a Peace Corps employee is responsible for routinely buying office supplies. A vendor offers to buy the employee lunch after a promotional presentation of several new products. The lunch costs less than $20.

“The employee is concerned that a reasonable person may question her impartiality in accepting the free lunch, as the timing of the offer indicates that the donor may be seeking to influence an official action and the company has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance or the nonperformance of the employee’s duties,” the rule said.

In OGE’s example, the employee decides to decline the gift, even though accepting it would not violate an official ethics law.

Other examples of specific dos and don’ts are sprinkled throughout the 17-page final rule.

OGE first published a proposed rule for gift acceptance policies last November. It received several comments, some of which suggested that the agency increase the dollar threshold above the $20 mark.

But OGE disagreed, arguing that $20 is still “workable.”

“Although $20 may not buy the sort of lunch that it bought in 1992 when the regulation was issued, no compelling argument has been made to support a conclusion that raising the cap on the blanket … exception in order to allow employees to accept more expensive and more frequent gifts, would strengthen the integrity of the executive branch’s operations,” the rule said.

Another change would require employees to receive written permission to accept free attendance to a widely attended event or conference.

Specifically, agency ethics officers should consider whether having the employee attend the event would influence his or her decision-making, the rule said.

Agencies should also think about whether the employee is presenting views or information that differs from the organization’s official position — or even from the sponsoring company or donor who works with the government.

Federal employees who give a speech or present agency information at a sponsored event or conference can typically attend for free, the rule said. 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.

New guidelines on accepting gifts go into effect Jan. 1.

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