Do's and don'ts for holiday gift giving at federal agencies

Tuesday - 11/27/2012, 11:58am EST

John Mahoney, federal employment attorney, Tully Rinckey law firm

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By Katie Howard
Federal News Radio

'Tis the season of Secret Santas, white elephant gifts and good will toward office coworkers. But if you're a federal employee, there's a strict list of who it would be naughty to give a present to or receive a present from during the holiday season.

"I hate to be the attorney who steals Christmas but, if federal employees don't want to receive a proposed removal in their stocking, they better be nice and comply with the standards of ethical conduct for federal employees regarding giving and receiving gifts," said federal employment attorney John Mahoney in an interview on The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

"The key is that you should not give your supervisor a holiday gift with a market value over $10. Likewise, if you are a federal employee, you should not accept a gift from a coworker with a market value of over $20," he said. "And you have to make sure that the aggregate total value of the gifts you receive from any single source does not exceed $50 a year."

Mahoney, chairman of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Tully Rinckey, recently wrote a blog post on "Giving Gifts, Receiving Trouble: Holiday Hazards For Fed Employees." He said giving or receiving gifts from prohibited sources is the ultimate don't.

According to the blog, federal employees should refrain from accepting gifts from people who are considered "prohibited sources" or who want to give them something solely because of their official position. A prohibited source, as defined by 5CFR 2635.203(d), is someone whose gift could create or pose a conflict of interest, if accepted. The list includes anyone who:

  • wants the employee's agency to do something.
  • has an existing or desired business with the employee's agency.
  • is regulated by the employee's agency.
  • could be impacted by the work the employee conducts.
  • is a member of an organization whose members are largely refrained from giving the gift to the employee for the above-stated reasons.

Return it

What is a federal employee to do if a gift from a prohibited source is received? "You are supposed to immediately return it," Mahoney said. "Send it back in the FedEx or in the UPS delivery."

However, if you can't return the item because, say, it is a perishable item, then you are supposed to return to the donor the market value of the gift that you received. But if it's not practical to return either the actual tangible gift or its market value, then the employee must inform their supervisor or their agency's ethics officials that they received the gift and let the supervisors or ethics officials decide how to handle the issue.

When it doubt, donate

It is proper for an employee to donate a gift over $20 or its amount in money to an appropriate charity, Mahoney said. Federal employees can also share perishable gifts worth more than $20 with all of the members of the office.

But, in some cases, the government may even decide to destroy the gift, if that's appropriate, Mahoney said.

Report, report, report

When in doubt, always tell your supervisor if a gift from the outside or inside appears to be over $20 in value.

If a federal employee does receive that office Secret Santa gift with a market value above $20 then the employee needs to inform the supervisor. Again, follow the appropriate channels of returning it like for a prohibited source. If you can't identify who the Secret Santa is, then donate the gift to charity. If the gift is a perishable item, share it among all the office members.

Mahoney cites a 2007 case from the Merit Systems Protection Board, Fletcher v. Department of Veterans Affairs, where the employee, a police officer for the VA, accepted some gifts from a patient and didn't properly inform the supervisor or return the gifts promptly. The employee was fired.

No gag gifts, please

Gag gifts can often turn into more trouble than their worth.

"If a recipient perceives it to be harassing or unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, then not only can you be in trouble if you give a gift over $20 but, if it's sexual in nature, you can face misconduct charges for sexual harassment or just generalized harassment," Mahoney said.

He pointed out that employees of the executive branch who violate these standards of ethical conduct when it comes to gifts can be removed for accepting inappropriate gifts, disciplined for conduct unbecoming a federal employee, and suspended, demoted or removed.