WASHINGTON – A word of advice to federal workers who are suddenly without a paycheck during the next government shutdown and tempted to ask for financial help through online sites like GoFundMe:
Federal workers or people acting on their behalf aren’t allowed in general to seek financial assistance through electronic crowdsourcing appeals, and those who do run the risk of violating federal ethics rules, the Office of Government Ethics warns in a new legal advisory.
“Such concerns raise a variety of ethics concerns,” the office’s director, Emory A. Rounds III, wrote in a Feb. 15 memo to federal agencies.
The advisory was prompted by questions raised during the recent, 35-day government shutdown, when some 800,000 federal employees were either placed on unpaid leave or forced to work without pay.
Some workers, or people acting on their behalf, solicited donations on crowdsourcing sites such as GoFundMe. Outside experts warned at the time that such appeals likely violated federal ethics rules. But no one could be certain how the ethics rules applied in such cases because the Office of Government Ethics, the primary source of such guidance, was one of the agencies that was closed.
The legal advisory attempts to shed light on the subject.
The advisory doesn’t explicitly say that such appeals are a no-no, but it points out that federal workers, or someone acting on their behalf, may not solicit gifts based on the worker’s employment.
That means an employee’s agency, title or status as a federal employee should not be used in any such solicitation – elements that were prominently included on most of the GoFundMe appeals launched on behalf of workers during the recent shutdown.
An employee could accept donations from his or her friends or relatives, the advisory says, as long as it is clear that any donations accepted are based on that friendship or family relationship.
Given the number of potential ethical pitfalls, employees are strongly encouraged to consult with their agency’s ethics official before any such fundraising campaign begins, the advisory says.
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Left unaddressed is the question of whether employees who received donations during the recent government shutdown – and may have unwittingly committed an ethics violation – should return the money or whether they will face disciplinary action.
“I appreciate that they put this out, although it was late in the process and it didn’t help those people who were affected (during the shutdown),” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit government watchdog group.
But by not saying whether workers who have already accepted donations should give that money back, “it kind of leaves employees hanging as to what they should do,” Canter said.
She urged the ethics office to issue another advisory answering those questions.
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For federal employees, the clarification on how ethics rules apply to crowdsourcing campaigns is helpful, said Ryan Baugh, a steward for the American Federation of Government Employees union.
But, “the fact that people are now in this position where they may have made an ethics violation, it just kind of highlights the tragedy of the shutdown,” said Baugh, a statistician in the Office of Immigration Statistics in the Department of Homeland Security.
“This was unprecedented to go a whole month without federal employees working or making them work without pay,” he said. “They were in difficult positions – not just for themselves but helping and needing to support their families. … There is a lot of mental heartaches just trying to figure out when will this end, what do I need to do to take care of my family, and what are the rules that apply to me.”
The rules, he said, are “never 100 percent clear.”’
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