Ethics office changes rule on travel reimbursements

Certain federal employees can be reimbursed for travel expenses related to unofficial speaking events under a final rule published Friday by the Office of Government Ethics. A provision in the Standards of Ethical Conduct prohibits federal employees from accepting compensation-including travel reimbursement-for teaching, speaking or writing on matters relating to their official duties. But in 1995, two EPA employees successfully challenged that provision and a district court of appeals ruled the travel part of it unconstitutional. In the case, Sanjour v. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA employees argued that they should be allowed to accept travel reimbursement for speeches given in a private capacity, but relating to their role as EPA officials. In their defense, the EPA employees pointed to a General Services Administration rule that allows federal agencies to permit employees to accept travel reimbursements for official speech. The court agreed that having the two conflicting rules was unwise and ruled in favor of the employees. Some non-career senior executives will still have to pay their own way to unofficial speaking gigs. The rule does not apply to political appointees and other senior non-career employees because "the balancing of interests relevant to senior executive officials might present a different constitutional question," the court ruled. The category "senior non-career" includes non-career employees who are members of the Senior Executive Service; political and Schedule C appointees; those above the GS-15 grade level; or those who make more than 120 percent of the minimum rate of basic pay for GS-15s. The rule also doesn't mean that employees can begin accepting large sums for speeches-it only applies to travel reimbursement. The prohibition on other forms of compensation for giving unofficial speeches related to official duty is still in effect. In addition, the GSA travel regulation still applies, OGE said. Two federal employees who submitted joint comments on the interim version of the rule suggested expanding the rule to include travel reimbursement for any function at which at which "a federal presence is desired." "These commenters misunderstand the purpose of the amendment. The intent is not to facilitate official travel," the rule stated. The final rule takes effect Dec. 31, 2001.