The Ethics of Federal Employees Accepting Gifts and Monetary Contributions

Image of red gift box with red ribbon and bow

What help are federal workers allowed to accept?

As the shutdown drags into its 32nd day, federal employees are about to miss their second full paycheck in a row. We have heard from numerous federal employees and federal employee unions asking about what help they are allowed to accept, and crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe are at the top of the list for related internet searches. Employees want to know if they can take advantage of free food at restaurants. Employees want to know if they can raise money through crowdfunding. They want to know if they can accept groceries or gas cards from churches and other charities that are trying to help them feed their families or get to work.

In addition to furloughing its employees and requiring others to work without pay, the government also failed to leave its employees with adequate guidance to navigate the financial straits the shutdown would leave them in. Unhelpfully, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics issued limited guidance on the eve of the shutdown, December 21, 2018, basically telling employees they must continue to comply with all of the ethics laws and regulations. On January 11, 2019, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a Fact Sheet regarding pay and benefits for furloughed and excepted employees. The Fact Sheet essentially stated that although furloughed employees cannot receive pay during a lapse in appropriations, and excepted employees are entitled to be paid for hours worked, they cannot receive pay until funding is provided. Significantly, neither OGE nor OPM advised furloughed and “essential” employees how they are to support themselves during the period without an income.

In light of the fact that many designated ethics officers are currently furloughed, it is important that federal government employees make the right decisions regarding whether they can accept gifts and/or monetary contributions without running afoul of government ethics laws and regulations.

Standards of ethical conduct regulate the conduct of public service employees. These standards include guiding principles which are applicable to the receipt of gifts and monetary contributions:

– Public service is a public trust which requires employees to place loyalty to ethical principles above private gain.

– Employees shall not use public office for private gain.

– Employees shall not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.

– Employees must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The regulations provide that employees shall not solicit or accept any gift or other item of monetary value from any person or entity seeking official action from, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by the employee’s agency, or whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee’s duties. These persons/entities are referred to as “prohibited sources.”

Keeping these principles in mind, federal government employees must bear in mind the following general rules (and exceptions):

– Employees can accept gifts from prohibited sources valued at $20 or less, but not more than $50 in a year from the same source. However, employees may not accept gifts of cash of any value from prohibited sources. Thus, an employee may accept food from a food bank or restaurant, as long as the food bank or restaurant is not a prohibited source (or the value of the food received is $20 or less, if the food bank or restaurant is a prohibited source), and the employee does not give preferential treatment to the food bank or restaurant.

– Employees can accept gifts from individuals whose motivation for giving the gift is a family relationship or personal friendship, rather than the position of the employee.

– Employees can accept discounts and reductions in membership fees which are available to the public or to all federal employees, as long as the membership is unrelated to government employment. However, the person/entity offering the discount and reduction must not be a prohibited source, and must offer the discount or reduction in a manner that does not discriminate against government employees on the basis of their official responsibilities, or in favor of their higher ranking or pay.

– Employees should not accept gifts if their integrity or impartiality could be questioned if they accepted the gift. This includes accepting gifts from the same or different sources on such a frequent basis that a reasonable person would be led to believe that the employee is using his/her public office for private gain.

* GoFundMe Accounts

The same rules generally apply to crowd-funding accounts as apply to gifts generally. Practically speaking, such funding is not likely objectionable if it has been set up so the donors are anonymous.

Because the Combined Federal Campaign is the only authorized solicitation of federal employees on behalf of charitable organizations, employees may not solicit other federal employees for contributions to any other charitable organizations.

KCNF attorneys are doing everything we can to help federal employees during this shutdown. This article is intended to help point federal employees in the right direction when it comes to whether they may accept gifts and donations without running afoul of ethical laws and regulations.


This blog is provided to our readers for informational purposes only. It is not offered as legal advice. Communication of information through this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should not rely upon information contained in this blog without first seeking professional legal advice. Attorneys at KCNF practice wage and hour law and have recovered tens of millions of dollars in unpaid work on behalf of employees. If you would like a telephone screening or consultation with a KCNF attorney, you are welcome to call 202-331-9260 to begin our intake process, or submit your legal issue on our Contact page.