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

Remember the Gift Rules During the Holidays
December 2, 2015

by Walter M. Shaub, Jr.

It’s that time of year again: The season for reminding federal employees about the government’s rules against accepting certain types of gifts.

Back in 1994, OGE shared a poem to promote awareness of the gift rules. Although the subject matter is probably a bit stodgy compared to a classic like “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” the poem has received attention from the media and policy wonks. One poetry teacher found it “surprisingly metrically sound.” So popular was the poem—at least inside the beltway—that it inspired some good-natured competition from Congressional staffers who wrote their own poem about gift rules.

OGE’s poem was not “commissioned” by OGE, as some have thought; it was written in-house by a talented former staff attorney. All the same, creating poetry exceeds my literary capacity, and no current staff members have volunteered to try their hands at penning heroic couplets in iambic pentameter to describe ethics restrictions. For these reasons, I won’t be releasing a new poem this year—I’ll have to refer you to the 1994 poem if you are poetically inclined.

What I will give you instead is some commonsense advice:  If you are a federal employee, you should consult your agency’s ethics officials before accepting any gift that is (1) offered by a subordinate or any federal employee who earns less than you do; (2) offered because of your federal position; or (3) offered by a prohibited source. (A prohibited source includes any person or organization seeking official action by your agency, doing business or seeking to do business with your agency, conducting activities regulated by your agency, or substantially affected by your duties.)

If you are offered an impermissible gift, you should decline it or promptly return it to the giver. Penalties for violating the gift rules can be severe, and it’s better to err on the side of caution if you are not sure whether the rules permit you to accept a gift. Turning down a gift might sound like an awkward thing to do, but you can explain that strict ethics rules limit what federal employees can accept. Feel free to tell the person who offered the gift to visit OGE’s website, which provides a summary of the gift rules.

To learn more, you can read about the rules covering gifts between federal employees and the rules covering gifts from sources outside the government. Also, you may want to read OGE’s proposed amendment to the gift rules. Among other changes, the proposed amendment would add a values-based requirement that employees consider declining otherwise permissible gifts whenever acceptance of the gifts would raise reasonable questions about their integrity.