I used to wonder why federal agencies found the need to imprint the following language on all their envelopes: Official Business Only – Penalty for Private Use $300. Then I became a defense attorney and quickly discovered that there are a lot of people in the world who really do need to need that reminder. Fleecing the taxpayers is a booming enterprise.
Unfortunately for federal employees and contractors, not all misuses of government resources are as obvious as the “Official Business Only” warning. And there can be severe consequences for those accused of misusing resources even unintentionally. Here are a few common examples that federal employees and contractors should keep in mind:
Social Networking At Work
If you are surfing the Web or otherwise not working for an extended period of time, billing the government for that time could land you in hot water. In this day and age, all federal employees and contractors should assume that their agency or employer is monitoring their computer activity and act accordingly. Believe it or not, I have seen cases where an employee’s security clearance is revoked for this type of behavior.
Using an Official Vehicle for Personal Business
I was recently getting a haircut when I observed a man park a vehicle with U.S. Government plates, enter the barber shop, and proceed to plop himself into a chair. Fortunately for him, no one that I saw seemed to take much interest in his G-ride. However, I suspect that his agency’s Inspector General or the Government Accountability Office would have something to say about the situation.
In fairness, the guy could have been on a lunch break. But the fact remains that using an official vehicle for personal business is not only bad optics, it is also unethical and a misuse of government resources.
Running a Business While on the Clock
Finally, an issue we see from time to time is federal employees or contractors who are “working” while also running a side business from the office. If the employing agency or contractor can prove its case—which, frankly, is not that challenging in this age of technology—the employee could be facing an allegation of time card fraud. There are serious criminal and civil penalties that often accompany such behavior; loss of a security clearance is the least of the concerns.
These are broad, perhaps obvious, examples, and I recognize that what constitutes an ethics violation may be confusing or even counter-intuitive at times. The point is that if you have a question about ethics you should ask your agency or company ethics official before you engage in the conduct. Unlike many things in life, this is not an area that lends itself to begging for forgiveness.
Sean M. Bigley represents clients in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com. This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.