Federal Workers Skirt Ethical Guidelines for Donations

Friday marked the first day federal employees from nine government agencies failed to receive a paycheck. Some of these employees have created online donation accounts to cover basic living expenses during their time without pay. While this can be an effective way to cover expenses, federal employees must be wary of ethical limitations to receiving gifts from outside sources.

A GoFundMe spokesperson confirmed to CNET that as of Friday, over 1,000 donation pages have been created on their site. Collectively, these campaigns have raised approximately $150,000.

Just before the shutdown began, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) sent out a legal advisory urging agencies to remind employees that while on furlough, federal workers remain employees of the federal government and therefore remain subject to ethics laws and regulations.

OGE guidelines explain that federal employees cannot receive gifts from “prohibited sources”, including any person or organization who “is seeking official action by, is doing business or seeking to do business with, or is regulated by the employee's agency; or has interests that may be substantially affected by performance or nonperformance of the employee's official duties.”

According to OGE guidelines, employees also must declare and pay taxes on their gifts.

Virginia Canter, Chief Ethics Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the Federal News Radio, this may mean federal employees using an online donation site, such as GoFundMe, must vet each donor to ensure they have not and do not plan to do business with the agency.

OGE guidelines further note that employees may only receive single gifts valued at $20 or less and multiple gifts from the same individual valued at no more than $50 in total within a calendar year. OGE guideline also explain, “An employee can never use his or her position or any authority associated with public office to solicit or coerce the offering of a gift.”

Canter suggests GoFundMe pages in which the requester advertises themselves as a federal employee affected by furlough may be seen as using their position to solicit donations. Instead, Canter proposes employee describe themselves vaguely as a “person impacted by the government furlough.”

Canter furthers, “They may not be able to use their individual position. Maybe it’s okay for a family member to say I am affected by the government furlough and [am] seeking possible donations… I would urge the Office of Government Ethics to put out general guidance on this. It’s not sufficient to say you have to comply with the ethics laws and regulations but not give common sense guidance about what would be permissible in the context of GoFundMe. There are going to be federal employees who are not just living paycheck to paycheck but day-to-day who are going to have to feed their children. It’s unrealistic to assume that they’re not going to need very definitive ethics guidance on this.”

While some agencies have issued individual guidance for navigating the ethical issues of using an online donation platform during the government shutdown, the OGE has not. The OGE remains on furlough and therefore has not updated their website with further guidance.

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