Conflicts and Impartiality

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 and your impartiality in performing official duties, 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 U.S.C. § 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; an organization that you serve as an officer, director, employee, general partner, or trustee; or someone with whom you have an arrangement for employment, or with whom you are negotiating for employment.

All DOI employees and Special Government Employees may be required to recuse (disqualify) from a matter in order to avoid a conflict of interest.  Use this Recusal Best Practices guide to understand when and how to recuse.

If you have recused from a matter to avoid a conflict of interest, you must implement a screening arrangement to include a gatekeeper.  Use these Guidelines for Gatekeepers to inform your gatekeeper how to help you comply with your recusal.

When you are unable to work on an assignment because of a conflict of interest, an agency can often reassign the matter to another employee. If, however, 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. Options for eliminating the conflict might include selling stock, resigning from a board, or terminating employment discussion with a prospective employer.

Example:  An employee is asked to serve on a source selection for the procurement of the agency's new computer system.  One of the competing contractors is ABC Corp. The employee owns stock in ABC Corp. valued at $50,000.  The employee must be recused from participating in this matter because it would affect his financial interests.

Appearance of Impartiality

There may be circumstances other than those covered by 18 U.S.C. § 208 in which an employee should not perform official duties in order to avoid an appearance of a loss of impartiality. The issue of impartiality is addressed in the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch at 5 C.F.R. § 2635.502. The regulation contains two disqualification provisions addressing appearance issues.

The first provision, entitled "Personal and business relationships," states that an employee should obtain specific authorization before participating in certain government matters where his or her impartiality is likely to be questioned. The matters covered by this standard are particular matters with specific parties, such as contracts, grants, or investigations:

  • that are likely to affect the financial interests of a member of the employee's household, or

  • In which persons with whom the employee has a specific relationship ("covered relationship") 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 employee has or seeks a business or financial relationship.

  • In addition, a "catch-all" provision states that an employee who is concerned that circumstances other than those specifically described above would raise a question regarding his or her impartiality should similarly obtain a specific authorization before participating in such matters.

The second disqualification provision, entitled "Extraordinary payments from former employers," restricts an employee's 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.

Example:  An employee is asked to serve on a source selection for the procurement of the agency's new computer system.  One of the competing contractors is ABC Corp. The employee has no financial interest in ABC Corp. (no stock or pension plan) but was previously employed by ABC Corp., having left the company six months ago to join the agency.  Absent a specific authorization, the employee may not paritcipate in this matter because he has a "covered relationship" with his former employer.

Service on the Board of Directors or as an Officer of an Outside Organization

  • All DOI employees who wish to serve on the Board of Directors or as an officer of an outside organization, in any capacity, should consult with their servicing ethics office for support.

  • Prior ethics approval is required for such service in an employee's:

    • official capacity (as part of the employee's official duties)

    • personal capacity (as an outside activity) if the organization is a prohibited source (your servicing ethics office will help you determine whether the organization is a prohibited source).

  • For additional information and support, contact your servicing ethics office.

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