With a new administration coming into office, there will be many changes in Washington. One less noticed change comes from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and will affect how you interact with new executive branch appointees and those career employees who stay on from the prior administration.
OGE recently published amendments to the executive branch gift rules, which took effect on January 1, 2017. The amendments affect some of the most common ways in which individuals and organizations engage with federal officials and employees, including receptions, widely attended gatherings, and gifts based on a family or personal relationship.
Here are some of the most significant changes:
- While "modest items of food and refreshment" have long been excluded from the definition of a "gift," the new rules remove any doubt about whether alcoholic beverages fall in this category. The answer is they do not. Thus, in order for a federal official or employee to partake at a cocktail (or similar) reception, the event will have to comply with one of the specific "exceptions" under the gift rules, such as the exceptions for gifts of $20 or less, widely attended gatherings, or receptions hosted by the employee's former employer when other former employees have also been invited to attend.
- Executive branch employees must obtain written authorization prior to attending a widely attended gathering—regardless of whether the employee is speaking at the event. It is therefore important to issue invitations well in advance of such events to allow time for agency employees to get approval from their ethics offices. Another rule change allows a federal employee who is speaking at a widely attended gathering to attend a "speakers' meal," which is normally held on the day before the event.
- The rules have long held that a gift based on a family or personal relationship may be accepted by a federal employee. Through an example in the new rules, employees are cautioned that a social media relationship alone does not establish that a gift is motivated by a personal relationship, rather than the position held by the employee. Any overtones of a business purpose will render a gift unacceptable.
- A nonbinding section in the new rules provides that an employee should consider whether an otherwise permissible gift should be declined because the gift would create the appearance that the employee's integrity or ability to act impartially may be compromised. Employees should consider such factors as the value and timing of the gift, as well as whether the donor has interests that may be substantially affected by the action or inaction of the gift recipient.
Whether your organization has a seasoned government affairs program or is newly considering the opportunities presented by a change in administration, Venable's Political Law Practice Group can help you navigate gift rules and other ethics issues that arise along the way.