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Ethics office: Workers should be wary of GoFundMe during shutdowns

If another shutdown and furlough should arise, federal workers should be careful about using online crowdsourcing campaigns like GoFundMe -- and about accepting gifts under any circumstances. This is according to new guidance issued by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Federal employees have ethical obligations that could come up in a shutdown situation where they are not getting paid due to a lack of appropriations. First, they should never use their status as a federal employee to solicit gifts. Next, they must be sure that any gifts they do receive don't come from prohibited sources, such as parties doing business with or regulated by the employee's agency.

According to the guidance, a gift violates ethics rules "if it would not have been given had the employee not held the status, authority, or duties associated with the employee's federal position." It goes on to say that personal crowdsourcing campaigns to offset wages delayed by a shutdown generally would violate ethics guidelines. This is because the employee's agency, title or status as a federal worker would be typically be used in such solicitations. Also, employees using crowdfunding would not be in a position to reject gifts from prohibited sources.

On the other hand, a crowdsourcing campaign by a third party whose proceeds are available to any furloughed worker might be acceptable, as long as it doesn't discriminate based on the rank, rate of pay or responsibilities of the worker and the campaign organizer is not a prohibited source.

During a furlough, federal employees can generally accept these items from non-prohibited sources:

  • Freebies or discounts offered to all federal workers and/or the general public, even if the offer is geographically restricted
  • Goodwill gifts worth $20 or less that are not cash or cash equivalents, up to an annual total of $50 (Note: political appointees cannot accept such gifts from lobbyists)
  • Financial assistance from friends and family members, as long as the relationship, not the employee's position, is the motivating factor
  • Non-cash gifts of $10 or less, personal hospitality, holiday gifts or shared food and refreshments from co-workers

Keep in mind that it is criminally illegal to accept any supplemental compensation for your services as a federal employee. However, donations to furloughed workers who have no ability to influence the government on behalf of the donor will generally be considered to be motivated by sympathy and will not be considered additional compensation.

Whenever a government employee accepts a gift, they should ensure that it does not come from a prohibited source or serve a prohibited purpose.

If you are challenged about a GoFundMe campaign or other gifts you received during the furlough, contact an attorney experienced in federal workforce issues.

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