With the recent and longest government shutdown in history just coming to an end this past month, it is important for government employees to understand the ethical limits which may continue to apply to them even while on furlough. Furlough status can place employees in a difficult financial position, because they remain members of the civil service and in order to protect their employment, they must be careful to avoid violating any ethical standard. In light of the recent lengthy shutdown, the Office of Government Ethics has clarified its guidance about how to handle some of the thorniest issues which arose while a large part of the federal workforce was idled and without pay for several weeks:
In general, a federal employee can never accept a gift that is based on their position or from a person who is seeking something in return from the employee or their Agency. However, there are several exceptions to this general rule. As long as a gift or donation is being offered generally rather than to the specific employee from someone seeking a benefit based on the employee’s position, the gift is most likely acceptable. Also, personal gifts from family and friends are most likely permissible as long as there is no improper attempt to influence the employee or the agency based on the employee’s position. Employees may also accept funds or donations from a source that seeks to assist all federal employees on non-pay status as long is the assistance is based on a broad class and the source is not prohibited. As such, it is okay for government workers to accept free meals and other offers extended by businesses as long as they meet the above parameters.
By contrast, crowdsourcing funds through websites like GoFundMe are much more problematic. Generally, an individual or someone on their behalf may not start a crowdsourcing campaign while in non-pay status. In a crowdfunding situation, it can be difficult to thread the needle and avoid gifts from donors with improper affiliations. Because an employee may not solicit or receive gifts based on their federal employment status, that affiliation would need to be excluded from any solicitation; further, an employee would need to be able to reject funds from prohibited sources and would therefore need to be able to identify the source of every donation – which is not always possible in crowdsourcing situations. OGE strongly encourages any employee that is considering creating a crowdsource if another shutdown occurs, to consult an ethics official first. And since it may be impossible to get advice during a shutdown, it would be best to make any such inquiries well before the next possible shutdown.
In general, OGE advises that employees may seek outside employment as long as it does not conflict with their official duties of their agency. However, employees should be aware that some Agencies have specific rules and regulations regarding outside employment and may require prior approval. As with the rules regarding specific individual gifts, employees should consult an ethics officer before a shutdown to determine whether such rules place limits on their ability to get jobs while furloughed. As always, employees are prohibited from using their official title or position in their non federal employment. If an employee wishes to continue their outside employment after returning to a pay status, it is crucial that they discuss this with an ethics official to make sure that it does not create any conflict of interest with their federal position.
If you are a furloughed federal employee or contractor, don’t wait to schedule a legal consultation with a federal employee attorney in DC.
Thanks to The Federal Practice Group for their insight into ethical considerations for furloughed employees.