Federal Rules on Gifts from Outside Sources


The basic rule

Donna works at the Environmental Protection Agency assembling data on the incidence of pesticide poisoning nationwide. In the course of her work she has occasionally spoken to Paul, a representative of a particular pesticide manufacturer. They’ve discovered that they were both raised on farms in Kansas. One day Paul stops by Donna’s office and proudly presents her with an expensive signed and framed print depicting a typical Kansas farm scene.

May Donna accept the print? No.

A Federal employee may not accept gifts from any person or organization that

Seeks official action by the employee’s agency;*
Does business or seeks to do business with the employee’s agency;*
Conducts activities regulated by the employee’s agency;*
Has interests that may be substantially affected by performance or nonperformance of the employee’s official duties;
Is an organization a majority of whose members are described above; or
Gives the gift because of the employee’s official position.
* Most Justice Department employees need only be concerned with persons having business with their components.

What is a gift?

Jake, an employee at the Fish and Wildlife Service, attends a 2:30 p.m. meeting with officials of a local environmental organization that is concerned about a proposed FWS regulation. The meeting is held at the offices of the environmental organization, which sends out for coffee and donuts. Jake would like to help himself to the refreshments but wonders whether they might be considered a prohibited “gift.”

May Jake accept the snacks? Yes.

The term “gift” includes almost anything of monetary value. But there are some items that won’t be considered gifts. Among these are soft drinks, coffee, donuts, and other modest refreshments offered other than as part of a meal.

Other items that won’t be considered gifts include–

Items of little intrinsic value which are intended solely for presentation, such as greeting cards, plaques, certificates, and trophies;

Anything paid for by the Government or secured by the Government in accordance with a statute;

Anything for which the employee pays market value;
Most rewards and prizes in contests open to the public;
Commercial discounts available to the general public or to all Government or military personnel;
Loans from banks and other financial institutions on terms generally available to the public; and
Payments under pension and similar employee benefit plans.
Exceptions to the gift rule

Nick’s job at the Federal Trade Commission is to provide economic input on issues involving consumer protection. He is given a ballpoint pen worth about $18 from a member of a consulting firm that frequently makes presentations before the FTC on behalf of affected clients.

May Nick accept the pen? Yes.

There are a number of exceptions to the rules against acceptance of gifts and one of these permits employees to accept unsolicited gifts with a market value of $20 or less per occasion.

This “$20 rule” does not apply to gifts of cash or investment interests. Also, under the rule, gifts received from any one source may not, in the aggregate, exceed $50 in a calendar year.

Jenny is employed as a researcher by the Veteran’s Administration. Her cousin and close friend, Zach, works for a pharmaceutical company that does business with the VA. Jenny’s 40th birthday is approaching and Zach and his wife have invited Jenny and her husband out to dinner to celebrate the occasion.

May Jenny accept? Yes.

Gifts are permitted where the circumstances make it clear that the gift is motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship rather than the position of the employee. It would be improper, however, for Jenny to accept the dinner if Zach charged the meal to his employer because then it would no longer be a gift from Zach.

Exceptions to the rule against acceptance of gifts allow employees to accept–

Unsolicited gifts with a value of $20 or less;
Gifts clearly given because of a family relationship or personal friendship;
Free attendance at an event on the day an employee is speaking or presenting information on behalf of the agency;
Free attendance at certain widely-attended gatherings;
Certain discounts and similar opportunities and benefits;
Certain awards and honorary degrees; and
Certain gifts based on outside business or employment relationships.
You should be aware that there are limitations on the applicability of some of these exceptions. For example, use of the widely-attended gathering exception would require an advance determination by your agency that your attendance is in the interest of the agency. Also, there are more exceptions than those listed above. When you are faced with a gift issue, it’s a good idea either to get advice from your agency ethics official or to look up the relevant provisions in the regulations.

Limits on use of the exceptions

Once you’ve determined that a gift falls within one of the exceptions to the gift rules, are you free to accept it? Not necessarily. None of the exceptions may be used to–

Accept a gift in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act;
Solicit or coerce the offering of a gift;
Accept gifts so frequently as to create an appearance that you are using public office for private gain;
Accept a gift in violation of any statute.
Among the statutes you should know about are those prohibiting–

Solicitation or receipt of bribes (18 U.S.C. § 201(b)); and
Receipt of salary or any contribution to or supplementation of salary as compensation for Government service from a source other than the United States (18 U.S.C. § 209).
Remember also that just because you may accept a gift under one of the exceptions to the gift rule doesn’t mean that you must accept the gift. It is never wrong, and is often wise, to decline a gift offered by a person or organization whose interests could be affected by actions of the agency where you work, or a gift offered because of your official position. Exercising your discretion to decline a gift may be particularly smart when a gift is offered by a person or organization whose interests could be affected by your official actions.