Government Ethics: Gifts with Monetary Value and Frequency Programs

» Posted by on Nov 22, 2014 in Travel Professional Resources | 0 comments

As a hotel industry representative who came to the government market less than two years ago from the corporate industry market, I was surprised at the number of limitations set on client gifts.  Accustomed to giving gifts to corporate clients, inviting them to VIP dinners or banquets, as well as, encouraging the use of our frequency program as an incentive to choosing us over another hotel chain, I am learning the intricacies of what is acceptable and allowed as a gift or giveaway for my new customers and what invitations they are allowed to accept.

The introduction to Government Ethics Standards states,

“An employee shall not, except pursuant to such reasonable exceptions as are provided by regulation, 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.”

Gifts from sources outside of the government are restricted.  Executive branch employees may not accept gifts that are given because of their official position or that come from certain sources prohibited due to intent. Those sources include persons or organizations which:

  • Are seeking official action by the employee’s agency.
  • Are doing or seeking to do business with the employee’s agency.
  • Are regulated by the employee’s agency.
  • Have interests that may be substantially affected by performance or nonperformance of the employee’s official duties.

Government employees may attend functions (dinners, parties, etc) that are free attendance at certain widely attended gatherings provided that there has been a determination that attendance is in the interest of their agency. Invitations from non-sponsors of the event may be accepted provided that certain additional conditions are met.  Exceptions to the sanctions for gifts and invitations would allow the acceptance in the following circumstances:

  • the value of the gift is $20 or less
  • the gift is based solely on a family relationship or personal friendship
  • the gift is based on an outside business or employment relationship
  • the gift is in connection with certain political activities
  • discounts
  • awards and honorary degrees
  • certain social events
  • meals, refreshments and entertainment in foreign countries

Exceptions are subject to some limitations.   Employees can never solicit or compel the offer of a gift, nor can he or she use exceptions to accept gifts so frequently that it is perceived as using public office for private gain.

Some items are not considered gifts and may be accepted without restriction.  A few examples would be refreshments such as coffee and donuts, greeting cards such as birthday or holiday cards, plaques, rewards or prizes open to the general public and pension benefits from a former employer.  If an employee receives a gift that cannot be accepted based on these regulations, the employee may return the gift or pay its market value. If the gift is perishable (food baskets, flowers), and/or it is not practical to return it, gifts may, with approval, be given to charity or shared in the office.

In regards to the collection and use of promotional items and frequency programs, the definition of government property includes “any right or other intangible interest that is purchased with government funds.” That means any promotional benefit that is received in connection with a purchase paid for by government funds is government property and may not be converted to personal use.

This rule applies to frequent flyer miles and frequent guest benefits received in connection with official travel.  Frequent flyer miles accumulated on official business are government property. They cannot be used for personal travel. Employees must have two separate frequent flyer accounts with airlines they use on both personal and official business on a regular basis.  Some airlines might not permit the establishment of two separate frequent flyer accounts with one name.  If that is the case, then the employee will have the burden of keeping separate records of official and personal frequent flyer miles. If the use of official frequent flyer miles is ever investigated, it will be very important to have accurate and complete records to show that the use of the official miles has been proper.  The same restrictions and suggested dual accounting apply to frequent guest benefits at hotels. People have been prosecuted and convicted for redeeming travel benefits accumulated on official travel for personal travel tickets for themselves and their family.

These same rules apply to promotional items or benefits received in connection with any government procurement.  If there is an advertisement offering free items with the purchase of (name quantity) of a material commodity, the free items also belong to the government.  This could be buy one get one free (both belong to the government) or spend stated amount and get free item (luggage, office supplies, companion airfare, etc.).  Because the original item(s) is purchased with government funds, the employee or procurement officer cannot keep the promotional item, as it is government property.

By: Crystal Wright


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