(Note: We hope this helps, but this does not constitute legal advice for gifting any agency or public official, so please consult a lawyer. We're pretty sure they'll agree with us!)
Is it possible to send gifts to official Government Employees that they can accept? Absolutely! We're betting you haven't read the law (§2635.203), but our lawyers did and we're happy to explain why and how it's possible to send meaningful gifts to a public official. We're also happy to include some acceptable options for government employees (and the options can be more than $20!)
1. The Government Allows Official Employees to Accept Certain “Gifts”
The Executive Order that the government's Office of Ethics follows doesn’t want you to wine and dine public officials from any agency, and that’s understandable. The government ethics watchdogs want public office holders to be as free from influence as possible and ensure no financial interests are at play. However, outside of meals, ethics rules say that reasonable food items that are refreshments are accepted. Let’s first take a look at the ethics rules by looking at the legal text:
Definition of "Gift"
A "gift" is defined to mean anything of monetary value, and specifically includes "transportation, local travel, lodgings and meals, whether provided in-kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred."
Exclusions from the Gift Rule
The following are examples of items that are not considered gifts and that may be accepted by an employee:
- - modest refreshments (such as coffee and donuts); (our emphasis)
- - greeting cards, plaques, and other items of little intrinsic value;
- - discounts available to the public or to all Government employees; and
- - rewards or prizes connected to competitions open to the general public.From the Office of Government Ethics on Gifts from Outside Sources (link)
Let’s read that exclusion again: modest refreshments (such as coffee and donuts)
Modest refreshments are a fancy word for snacks. So what are some refreshment ideas that could be considered snacks? We have a few here, but of course this isn’t exhaustive. And of course, your department or agency can vary in it’s “refreshment” preferences:
- Gift Towers of Nuts
- Shareable Food
- Coffee Cakes
- Actual Coffee
- Specialty Popcorn
- Baked Cakes
- Candy Bouquets
- Cookie Bouquets
- Freshly Baked Bread (just checking to see if you’re awake!)
So our take? Buying meals are a no-no. But snacks and refreshments are ok. Especially if they're sent in the name of a group or department.
2. Certain items are acceptable at any agency or deparment
If you read the law, you’ll see that “greeting cards, plaques, and other items of little intrinsic value;” are accepted. That means that tchotkes like pens, keychains and cheap USB ports are acceptable for an agency. Coffee Mugs are also acceptable, but that get closer to a grey area since it's personal use. We have some great alternatives that could go a long way: A personalized piece of glass like a water or wine decanter. It’s like a plaque...just in a different form 😉
Let's give you an example. You could easily have a flask or some other desk accessory be considered a gift of little intrinsic value. Here’s an example of a gift with little intrinsic value:
Important Note: The amendments clarify that if an item has “significant independent use” then an executive branch employee may not accept it under this exception. So if it’s something the employee will take home and use, this is probably not the gift for them. But if it’s a personalized notepad, that’s probably closer to being ok. Source: Perkins Coie
3. The Government Rules are not clear about gifts for an entire group of officials
The government’s Executive Order is not explicit about gifts to a group of officials or employees. For example, instead of sending a gift addressed to a single employee, address the gift to a Group within the agency or department.
Here's an example. This address:
Office of Insular Affairs
Department of Interior
Washington DC 20016
is much fuzzier than this address:
Head of Insular Affairs
Washington DC 20016
Addressed to an agency department above, and not a specific government official means the gift shows up at that agency or department’s mail stop. If your group is small enough, it’ll go to the right person, without tripping any ethical guidelines. Furthermore, that supervisor will likely make the perishable food item (see below) or refreshments (see above) available to the group as a whole and that will clearly be ok from an ethical and legal standpoint (we believe). If you happen to address the government gift to a person, that might likely cause some issues. Source: NASA Office of General Counsel
4. Perishable Gifts….can be distributed to a Group
So you're still not convinced by any of the above gifts for public officials. We know. It's tough. Financial Disclosure laws, ethics codes and standards of conduct can be all over the map. But after reading agency after agency rules, one thing is true about all of them. They all say that if you send a gift, and it has to be rejected, there is a method of disposing the gift.
Yes, even the disposal presents an opportunity for a government employee to give a gift. Happy to describe how: if you send a gift of fresh fruit, like any of these fruit baskets, to a specific employee, they’ll be forced to either throw it away or eat it all and enjoy it. That's right, the ethics codes say that public officials should make available perishable goods to the team and allow the team to consume them. (Stay under $100 for maximum effect and to not be obnoxious!)
Your message and gesture will get across and be legally disposed of since that's what the government requires.
Source: 5 C.F.R. § 2635.203(b)
5. Gifts of informational materials.
This is a meaty one to dissect, but we wanted to introduce it because not many people have heard of this rule for government officials. We read a variety of agency rules and we saw that the Department of Interior has the clearest advisory opinion we could find. We include the text below, but here's what we read it to be:
You can send informational materials to a recipient, as long as the value of that information doesn't exceed $100. Generally that can come in the form of a glossy book, brochure or other relevant piece of media. What does this mean? You can send a book related to that employee or official's job.
So for example, are you a contractor working with a group that oversees travel for the Department of Defense? You can send them a book about wartime ships, war history or anything in that might be informational for them in their sector. It can even be a book with a lot of pictures (think a coffee table book). And yes, it's allowed! See the law below and the relevant source.
You may accept unsolicited gifts of informational materials, provided that the aggregate market value of all information materials received from any 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:
- The employee's official duties or position, profession, or field of study;
- A general subject matter area, industry, or economic sector affected by or involved in the programs or operations of the agency; or
- Another topic of interest to the agency or its mission.
Source: Department of Interior
Bottom Line on Government Employee Gift Rules:
Modest Gifts of Refreshments are NOT considered Gifts.
There are a lot of things to consider when trying to gift a government employee in an ethical way. There are obvious ways public officials cannot accept gifts. As Public Servants, we hope they accept gifts that that fit our ethics code and meet the letter of the Executive Order that has been written.
We hope we’ve provided some insights on how you can gift federal employees (and probably state employees) in an ethical manner. If you’re not sure, just ask for our government gift specialist. He’d be happy to help guide you in order to make a decision based on rules that public officials can accept.
Still have questions? It's a very confusing area. Ask us in the comments below and we're happy to give you guidance.
- 1. The Government Allows Official Employees to Accept Certain “Gifts”
- 2. Certain items are acceptable at any agency or deparment
- 3. The Government Rules are not clear about gifts for an entire group of officials
- 4. Perishable Gifts….can be distributed to a Group
- 5. Gifts of informational materials.
- Bottom Line on Government Employee Gift Rules: