Conflicting Financial Interests
Sometimes your government work may benefit you or your family personally, or may affect individuals or organizations that you have some connection with outside your government job. In these circumstances, the public could be concerned that you will be motivated by considerations other than your desire to do what is best for the public as a whole. Because the success of our government system depends upon maintaining the confidence of the public, your agency might decide that you should not be involved in a certain assignment because the public might question your objectivity.
Of course, the public is likely to consider some circumstances more troublesome than others. Recognizing this, Congress passed a criminal conflict of interest law, 18 USC § 208, which prohibits you from working on an assignment in some situations - even if you know you can be objective and even if your supervisor wants you to work on it.
Specifically, this law says that you may not work on an assignment that you know will affect your own financial interests or the financial interests of your spouse or your minor child. The prohibition also applies if you know the assignment will affect the financial interests of your general partner, or of an organization that you serve as an officer, director, employee, general partner, or trustee and affect the financial interests of someone with whom you have an arrangement for employment, or with whom you are negotiating for employment.
When you are unable to work on an assignment because of this conflict of interest, an agency can often reassign the matter to another employee. However, if that is not possible or if your inability to work on that particular assignment means you will not be doing the job the government hired you to do, then your agency can require you to remove yourself from the situation which is causing the conflict. (Such as -- selling stock, resigning from a board, or terminating employment discussion with a prospective employer.)
Appearance of Impartiality
There may be circumstances other than those covered by 18 USC § 208 in which employees should not perform official duties in order to avoid an appearance of loss of impartiality. The issue of impartiality is addressed in the Standards of Ethical Conduct for employees of the executive branch at 5 CFR 2635.502. The regulation contains two disqualification provisions addressing appearance issues.
The first provision, entitled "Personal and business relationships," states that employees should obtain specific authorization before participating in certain government matters where their impartiality is likely to be questioned. The matters covered by this standard include those:
- Involving specific parties, such as contracts, grants, or investigations, that are likely to affect the financial interests of members of the employees' households, or
- In which persons with whom employees have specific relationships are parties or represent parties. This would include, for example, matters involving recent employers, employers of spouses or minor children, or anyone with whom the employees have or seek a business or financial relationship.
The second disqualification provision, entitled "Extraordinary payments from former employers," restricts employees' participation in certain matters involving former employers. If a former employer gave an employee an "extraordinary payment" in excess of $10,000 prior to entering Federal service, this provision bars the employee from participating for two years in matters in which that former employer is a party or represents a party. For example, a $25,000 payment voted on an ad hoc basis by a Board of Directors would be an "extraordinary payment". A routine severance payment made under an established benefit plan would not.