Many questions arise concerning the acceptance of gifts of travel (transportation, lodging, and meals), or travel expenses. As a first step, it is important to distinguish gifts of personal travel from gifts of official travel.
Note: Some travel is associated with services provided by an employee in connection with outside employment or an outside activity, so it is proper to consider the question in that context. See, for example, the definition of "compensation" in 5 C.F.R. § 2635.807 (concerning teaching, speaking, and writing).
Gifts of Personal Travel
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, and specifically includes "transportation, local travel, lodgings and meals, whether provided in-kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred." 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: If a gift of personal travel is from a foreign government or an international or multinational organization composed of foreign governments, an employee may accept the gift only in accordance with a statute. See especially 5 U.S.C. § 7342. If a foreign government provides the travel and it is associated with services provided by the employee, the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution may be relevant.
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 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 that the employee is using public office for private gain.
Only some of the exclusions or exceptions may extend to gifts of personal travel. For example, under an exclusion, an employee may accept favorable rates and commercial discounts available to the public or to all Government employees or all uniformed military personnel. Exceptions that may extend to the acceptance of personal travel include those that permit an employee to accept gifts:
- 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);
- motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship;
- resulting from the employee's outside business or employment activities;
- resulting from the business or employment activities of an employee's spouse; and
- customarily provided by a prospective employer in connection with bona fide employment discussions.
Gifts of Official Travel
Absent Congressional consent, an executive branch agency may expend for program purposes only the amount which has been appropriated. Congress has consented to the augmentation of appropriations by means of gift acceptance statutes. There are several statutes that can be used by an agency (or its employees) to accept gifts of official travel (or expenses) from non-Federal sources. These gifts must be accepted in accordance with the terms of the statute and any applicable implementing regulation.
In particular, 31 U.S.C. § 1353 is an executive branch-wide authority that permits an agency to accept a payment of "travel, subsistence, and related expenses" from a non-Federal source for an employee's official travel, away from the employee's official station, to attend a "meeting or similar function." The implementing regulation is published by the General Services Administration at 41 C.F.R. chapter 304.
Note: Agencies are required to submit to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) semiannual reports of payments received from non-Federal sources under 31 U.S.C. § 1353. Those travel reports are available on this website.
Frequent Flyer Miles, Upgrades, Etc.
There are many subjects relating to travel that do not fall within OGE's purview, including:
- Frequent Flyer Miles
- Denied Boarding
- Voluntary Relinquishment of Seat
Learn more at www.gsa.gov.
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.