DEO Ethics Reference - Gifts FAQs [pdf]


Holiday Season Gift FAQs

What Is a Gift? - 5 C.F.R. § 2635.203(b) and (c)

A gift is anything that has monetary value that you obtain for less than “market value.” The gift might be tangible or intangible. A gift may include, but is not limited to, a gratuity, favor, discount, cash, gift certificate, gift card, entertainment, hospitality,  loan, forbearance,  or other item having monetary value. It also applies to services, training, transportation, travel, lodging, and meals. See 5 C.F.R. § 2635.203(b).

“Market value” is the retail price that you, the recipient of the gift, would have to pay to purchase it. If you cannot readily determine the retail value of a gift, you may estimate its value by reference to the retail cost of items of similar quality. If a ticket entitles you to food, refreshments, entertainment, or any other benefit, the market value is the face value printed on the ticket.

Gifts from Outside Sources - 5 C.F.R. § 2635.202

As a general rule, you may not, directly or indirectly, solicit or accept a gift: (1) From a prohibited source; or (2) Given because of your official position. A prohibited source is any person, company, or organization that has business with your agency, is seeking to do business with your agency, conducts operations that are regulated by your agency, or has interests that might be affected by the performance or nonperformance of your official duties; or is an organization, a majority of whose members are described above.

Exclusions: Some Things Are Not Gifts

Some items are excluded from the definition of gift, and you may accept them pursuant to certain specific regulatory exclusions.

  • Modest items of food and non-alcoholic refreshments such as soft drinks, coffee, and donuts, not offered as part of a meal.
  • Greeting cards and items of little intrinsic value such as plaques, certificates, or trophies, which are intended primarily for presentation.
  • Prizes in contests open to the general public.
  • Commercial discounts available to the general public or to all Government employees.
  • Commercial loans, pensions, and similar benefits on terms available to the general public.
  • Anything for which you pay fair market value.
  • Anything that is paid for by the Government.
  • Free attendance provided by the sponsor of an event to which you have been assigned to present information on behalf of the agency.

1. If you are assigned to participate as a speaker or panel participant or otherwise to present information on behalf of DOI or your bureau at a conference or other event, you may accept free attendance at the event on the day of your presentation if it is provided by the sponsor of the event. This is not considered a gift to the employee or the agency. For speaking engagements, free attendance has the same meaning as for widely attended gatherings.

As with a widely attended gathering, you must receive approval prior to the event.

2. If the event is longer than one day, and you are offered free attendance for any day(s) on which you are not assigned to present information on behalf of DOI or your bureau, free attendance for those non- speaking days may be acceptable under the widely attended gathering exception to the gift rules. You still must seek approval from your ethics counselor.

Pursuant to DOI Supplemental Regulations, the Department is broken down into separate “agencies” for purposes of identifying “prohibited sources.” Please see 5 C.F.R. Part 3501 for a list of the current designation of separate agency components.

For example, a company that is only involved with the Department  and  its  employees  through activities  regulated by BLM would only constitute a prohibited source for  BLM  employees  – not the employees of any other listed “agency.”

For employees not employed by a specific “designated agency component” (e.g., Office of the Solicitor employees), all prohibited sources of any “agency” of DOI constitute a prohibited source.

A gift is solicited or accepted because of “official position” if it would not have been solicited,  offered, or given had the  employee  not  held  the  status,  authority,  or  duties associated with his or her Federal position.

Considerations in Declining an Otherwise Permissible Gift

You should consider declining an otherwise permissible gift if you believe that a reasonable person would question your impartiality or integrity as a result of accepting the gift.

Factors to consider:

  • Does the gift have a high market value?
  • Does the timing of the gift create an appearance that the donor is attempting to influence an official action?
  • Is the donor someone whose interests may be affected by the performance of your duties?
  • Will acceptance of the gift provide the donor with dis- proportionate access to the employee or the agency?

Remember, it is never inappropriate, and frequently prudent, to decline a gift.

Exceptions to the Gift Prohibition - 5 C.F.R. § 2635.204

There are some limited circumstances when you can accept  gifts  given  because  of  your official position or from prohibited sources.  Even where a gift exception is applicable, you should always consider whether it is appropriate to decline the gift.

Gifts valued at $20 or less (retail market value), per occasion from a single source.

You may accept unsolicited gifts that do not exceed $20 per occasion, up to $50 aggregated from a single source in any given calendar year. You may not accept cash or checks made out to you under any circumstance. Gift cards valued at $20 or less for specific vendors/restaurants are permissible. If the gift is valued over $20 you may not pay the difference in order to accept the gift. If the aggregate value of gifts from the same source on a given occasion exceeds $20, you may decline any distinct and separate item in order to accept those items aggregating $20 or less.

Widely attended gatherings.

Acceptance of free attendance from the sponsor of a widely attended gathering is permissible as long as certain prior approval requirements are met. Employees must receive written approval prior to the event using form DI-1958. An event is widely attended if it is expected that a large number of persons will attend and that persons with a diversity of views or interests will be present. For example, an event may be considered a widely attended gathering if it is open to members from throughout the interested industry or profession or if those in attendance represent a range of persons interested in a given matter.

Attendance at such an event will be in the employee’s personal capacity, i.e., on the employee’s own time, or if authorized by the agency, on excused absence.

There is an additional restriction on accepting free attendance to a widely attended gathering if someone other than the sponsor of the event invited you and is paying for your attendance (such as if a corporation or friends group invited you to sit at their table). In that case, you may accept free attendance only if more than 100 persons are expected to attend, the gift of your attendance has a market value of $415 or less (as of January 2020, but this amount is revised every three years) and your attendance is approved as being in the interest of DOI or your bureau. This dollar figure may change periodically. Please verify the current allowance with your ethics official.

Free attendance may include waiver of all or part of a conference or other fee or the provision of food, refreshments, entertainment, instruction, and materials furnished to all attendees as an integral part of the event. It does not include travel expenses, lodging, entertainment collateral to the event, or meals taken other than in a group setting with all other attendees. Under certain circumstances, DOI or your bureau may be able to accept travel expenses from outside sources to attend these events as described below in the “Traveling on Official Business” section of this website.

Discounts and similar benefits that are offered to the public, other groups that you belong to, or to all Government employees.

This exception includes favorable rates offered to all Federal employees even when you are off duty. It also includes favorable rates and commercial discounts offered to members of a group or class in which membership is unrelated to Federal employment.

Gifts based on outside business or employment relationships.

This exception permits you to accept gifts that result from your outside affiliations, outside work, or other relationships and those of your spouse, or customarily provided in connection with bona fide employment discussions, provided the gift is not offered or enhanced due to your official position. Lastly, you may accept gifts provided by a former employer to attend a reception or similar event when other former employees have been invited to attend, the invitation is based on the former employment benefits have not been offered or enhanced because of your official position.

Awards and honorary degrees.

You may accept awards with an aggregate value of $200 or less given as a bona fide award for meritorious public service by a person or organization who does not have interests affected by the performance or nonperformance of your official duties. Awards valued at more than $200, or that include cash or an investment interest of any amount, require prior written approval from an ethics counselor. You may also accept honorary degrees upon written approval from your ethics counselor.

Gifts from a political organization.

You may accept a gift given by a political organization in connection with political activities permitted by the Hatch Act, as amended, 5 U.S.C. §§ 7321-7326.

Gifts based on a personal relationship. 

You may accept a gift given under circumstances that make it clear that the gift is motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship rather than your official position. If the gift is given for business reasons or is not personally paid for by the family member or friend, it is not covered under this exception.

Social invitations.

You may accept a gift of food, refreshments, and entertainment (not including travel or lodgings) at a social event attended by several persons where no fee is charged to anyone in attendance and the invitation is not from a prohibited source. A written determination from the agency designee is required if either the sponsor of the event or the person extending the invitation is not an individual.

Gifts of informational materials.

You may accept unsolicited gifts of informational materials, provided that the aggregate market value of all informational materials received from any one person does not exceed $100 in a calendar year (if the value exceeds this amount, seek guidance from your ethics official). Informational materials are writings, recordings, documents, records, or other items that: are educational or instructive in nature; are not primarily created for entertainment, display, or decoration; and contain information that relates in whole or in part to the following categories:

1. The employee's official duties or position, profession, or field of study;

2. A general subject matter area, industry, or economic sector affected by or involved in the programs or operations of the agency; or

3. Another topic of interest to the agency or its mission.

Disposition of a Prohibited Gift

You must promptly return the gift or pay the donor for its market value. If the gift is a tangible item valued at $100 or less, you may destroy the item. If the gift is perishable, such as food or flowers, it may be shared within your office, donated to charity, or destroyed, as long as an ethics official or your supervisor grants approval.

If you receive a gift that doesn’t fall within an exclusion or exception, the Department or bureau may be able to accept the item as a gift to the agency using its statutory gift acceptance authority. Employees should consult with the Office of the Solicitor and their ethics counselor in such cases, particularly if refusal to accept the gift would cause offense or embarrassment.

Gifts from Foreign Governments

In accordance with the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, you may not accept anything of value from a foreign government, unless specifically authorized by Congress. This rule applies whether you are on or off duty. Any unit of a foreign government, whether it is national, state, local, or municipal level is covered. It also applies to gifts from international or multinational organizations composed  of  government  representatives.  It  also  may apply to gifts of honoraria, travel, salary, or per diem from foreign universities, which are often considered as part of the foreign government. Spouses and dependent children of  Federal  employees  are  also banned  from  accepting gifts from foreign governments.

The following gifts from foreign governments are authorized under the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, 5 U.S.C. § 7342:

Gifts of minimal value ($415 or less, as of January 2020, but this amount is revised every three years)

  • Travel expenses (including transportation, food, and lodging) for travel taking place entirely outside the U.S. that exceeds minimal value
  • Educational scholarships
  • Medical treatment

If the value of a gift exceeds minimal value and where refusal of a gift would cause embarrassment either to the United States or the foreign government offering the gift, the gift may be accepted on behalf of the Department. You should consult with the DEO or an ethics counselor from your bureau/office regarding such gifts. These statutory foreign gift restrictions also apply to the spouses and dependent children of Federal employees.

Gifts Between Employees - 5 C.F.R. § 2635 Part C

General Rule: Generally, you can’t give a gift to a person above you in your supervisory chain. You also can’t solicit donations to buy a gift for a superior. You likewise can’t accept a gift from an employee that receives less pay than yourself. However, there are some exceptions.

Gifts are permissible if:

  • There is a personal relationship between you and the other employee that would justify the gift and there is no subordinate-official superior relationship.
  • A personal hospitality gift provided at a residence, which is of a type and value you customarily provide to personal friends.
  • A gift given in connection with the receipt of personal hospitality if of a type and value customarily given on such occasions (e.g., a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers).
  • A gift (other than cash) that has an aggregate market value of $10 or less per occasion.
  • A gift of leave transferred under an approved agency leave sharing plan (but not to your immediate supervisor).
  • Items such as food and refreshments to be shared in the office among several employees.
  • There is a special and infrequently occurring occasion of personal significance, such as marriage, illness, the birth or adoption of a child; or an occasion that terminates a subordinate-official superior relationship, such as retirement, resignation, or transfer. On such occasions, an employee may give an appropriate gift exceeding the $10 limit and may request donations of nominal amounts within the office for contributions toward an appropriate gift. Donations must be entirely voluntary. Employees must be free to contribute a suggested amount, a lesser amount, or nothing at all.

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