Fedweek

The Office of Government Ethics has issued detailed guidance on the ethical implications of federal employees accepting financial and other assistance when in non-pay status due to an agency funding lapse, raising the prospects that some employees who took such steps during the recent partial shutdown might be found in violation of those rules.

While OGE had issued general guidance at the start of the shutdown reminding employees that ethical rules continue to apply, OGE was itself one of the agencies shuttered and it did not answer questions arising during that time over whether certain activities were permissible.

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One issue involved “fund me” type solicitations, which many employees created or had created by someone on their behalf. OGE had not previously addressed the issue in detail. Its new guidance warns that such solicitations “raise a variety of ethics concerns . . . these campaigns require careful planning to avoid violating ethics rules.”

It says that contributions to such solicitations are considered gifts and that federal employees, or others acting on their behalf, generally may not solicit gifts based on federal employment. Also, employees cannot generally accept gifts from “prohibited sources”—entities or persons who have a stake in decisions the employee or agency makes. “Therefore, an employee would need to be able to identify and reject such prohibited donations . . . Given the number of potential ethical pitfalls, OGE strongly encourages employees to consult an ethics official before any such campaign begins,” it says.

However, it says that employees potentially could accept assistance from a general fund to benefit federal employees so long as it does not distinguish between those in non-paid vs. paid status. The same applies to accepting assistance such as free meals and store discounts, while accepting a low- or no-interest loan may be allowed even if such assistance is offered only to unpaid employees as long as the offer does not come from a prohibited source.

Employees also may be able to accept assistance from family members or personal friends so long as certain conditions are met, but generally not from co-workers, it says.