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Can You Accept That Glass of Wine at a Contractor’s Holiday Party?

Ethics office proposes updated gift guidance as the holiday season gets under way.

Using language with ever-finer hair-splitting, the Office of Government Ethics is using the holiday season as an opportunity to remind federal employees of nuanced rules on accepting gifts at work, while proposing an update and clarification of the guidance.

In a Dec. 2 blogpost, OGE Director Walter M. Shaub, Jr. recapped the history of a well-remarked-upon poem about government ethics written by an agency attorney in the 1990s. More seriously, he highlighted a proposed new gift rule published Nov. 27 in the Federal Register.

Prepared after consultation with the Justice Department and Office of Personnel Management, the proposed update of executive orders dating back to 1992 is intended to provide more flexibility in employee decisions after attending, for example, contractor industry conferences. It also seeks to improve the logic in how the rules are presented.

“It is OGE’s experience that employees and ethics officials sometimes focus on whether a regulatory exception permits the acceptance of an otherwise impermissible gift, and not on whether acceptance of the gift could affect the perceived integrity of the employee or the credibility and legitimacy of the agency’s programs,” the draft stated.

To counter this tendency, OGE proposed “a nonbinding standard” for many situations and reliance on employees to consider whether “a reasonable person” would question their integrity should they accept the gift. Examples of guidance include distinguishing between items offered by outsiders “with little intrinsic value” but that are offered as part of a presentation. Items that do have intrinsic value and hence would not be permissible include “watches, artwork, items containing precious metals or gemstones, fine crystal, or that otherwise have significant independent value would not qualify for this exclusion, even if they were inscribed or otherwise adorned with personalized information (such as the name of the donor,” the draft rules said.

Federal executives at events are often handed videos or books that form part of the presenter’s message, the draft noted. But if they are valued at more than $100, they would not be considered be permissible, nor would “entertainment materials, such as novels, audio or video recordings of entertainment programs, or pictures, photographs or artwork intended for display or decoration.”

Agency staff are allowed to accept free admission to relevant conferences, for themselves, their spouses or any security detail employees. They may accept ‘‘modest items of food and refreshment’’ but not “alcoholic beverages served at a government contractor’s holiday party.”

The difference on accepting meals is that “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,” the draft said.

The existing rules state that federal employees who receive an impermissible “tangible gift” must either return it or pay the donor market value. Under the proposed update, the employee would have a third option of physically destroying or trashing any gift valued at less than $100. “OGE understands that on occasion it may be impossible, cost- prohibitive, or time-consuming for the employee or agency to return the prohibited gift,” the draft said. “This could be the case, for example, if the donor was unknown or unreachable.”

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