United States Office of Government Ethics, Preventing Conflicts of Interest in the Executive Branch

Awards & Honors
April 11, 2017

Subpart B of 5 C.F.R. part 2635 governs gifts from outside sources. An executive branch employee is prohibited from soliciting or accepting a gift from a "prohibited source" or given because of the employee's official position, unless an exclusion or exception applies. A "gift" is defined to mean anything of monetary value (for which the employee does not pay market value), so the term may encompass an award or other mark of recognition. Even if an employee may accept a gift, employees should consider declining gifts when they believe that their integrity or impartiality would be questioned if they were to accept the gift.

Note: See 5 U.S.C. § 7342 and the relevant agency's implementing regulation, if any, if the award or mark of recognition is from a foreign government or an international or multinational organization composed of foreign governments.

The several exclusions from the definition of "gift" are set out in 5 C.F.R. § 2635.203(b). If something falls within an exclusion, it can be accepted because it is not considered to be a gift at all. Section 2635.204 sets out the exceptions, and Section 2635.202 includes provisions that limit the use of the exceptions. More specifically, notwithstanding an exception, an employee may not:

  • accept a gift in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act;
  • solicit or coerce the offering of a gift; or
  • accept gifts from the same or different sources on a basis so frequent that a reasonable person would believe the employee is using public office for private gain.

If an employee is offered an award or other mark of recognition, the following exclusions or exceptions are most likely to be relevant:

  • Plaques, etc. An employee may accept items with little intrinsic value, such as plaques, certificates, and trophies, which are intended solely for presentation.
  • Gifts valued at $20 or Less. An employee may accept a gift (other than cash or an investment interest) having a market value of $20 or less, provided that the total value of gifts accepted under this provision from any one person or organization does not exceed $50 in a calendar year.
  • Awards. An employee may accept an award for public service or achievement, provided the award and any item incident to the award is from a person or organization that does not have interests that may be substantially affected by the employee's official duties.
    • If the award or any item incident to the award is a cash award or an investment interest of any value, an agency ethics official must first make certain findings about the legitimacy of the award.
    • If the aggregate value of the award or any item incident to the award (other than free attendance to the event for the employee and the employee's family) exceeds $200, an agency ethics official must first make certain findings about the legitimacy of the award.
    • The value of any travel or travel expenses provided by the donor must be counted toward the $200 threshold unless the employee's agency accepts the gift of travel.
    • Regardless of the market value of the award, an employee and the employee's family may accept meals and entertainment at the event at which the presentation takes place.
  • Honorary Degrees. An employee may accept an honorary degree from an institution of higher education, provided an agency ethics official first makes a written determination that the timing of the award of the degree would not cause a reasonable person to question the employee's impartiality in a matter affecting the institution.

 

Note: Full-time political appointees are further limited with respect to gifts from outside sources. Because these appointees sign the Ethics Pledge pursuant to Executive Order 13770, they are prohibited from accepting gifts or gratuities from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations (subject to certain exceptions).

The information on this page is not a substitute for individual advice. Agency ethics officials should be consulted about specific situations.