WASHINGTON – Furloughed federal employees who are using GoFundMe and other social media to raise money because they are not being paid are likely violating ethics rules and could face punishment when the government reopens, experts say.
But one reason no one knows for sure how ethics rules apply to the 800,000 federal employees not getting paid is that the Office of Government Ethics, the primary source of such guidance, is one of the agencies that is closed.
Tyler Cole, legislative director at Issue One, a nonpartisan government reform group, said he believes these sort of solicitations violate rules governing gifts to federal employees.
In particular, Cole cited the prohibition on cash gifts of more than $20.
“They didn’t want people to be handing cash around to federal employees,” Cole said of the authors of the rules.
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has a similar view.
“I see this as a potential minefield,” Canter said. She said employees using one of these sites may be able to take steps to avoid running afoul of ethics rules, such as not identifying themselves as a federal employee.
But all of the nearly 150 campaigns reviewed on GoFundMe that are soliciting donations for federal employees clearly identify themselves or the person they are trying to help as a federal employee and most say what agency they work for. Some also say the position they hold in that agency.
Michael Roots, 57, of Georgetown, Texas, identifies himself as an IRS employee on his GoFundMe page.
“It was very hard to do,” Roots said of deciding to create the campaign and ask for donations. “We have always been givers.” So far, he has received $760 of his $3,000 goal in five donations ranging from $20 to $400. Two donations have names attached, but the other three are anonymous.
Roots, who works in information technology, said he has been at the IRS since August 2018 and worked for the Veterans Administration the previous six years.
He said he has been looking for a temporary job but that is difficult given that he can’t say when he will be called back to work. For now, he has been delivering food for restaurants but what he earns barely covers the cost of gasoline.
He can’t do any work related to tax preparation – his area of expertise – because that would be a clear violation of conflict-of-interest rules. He said he looked to guidance on the GoFundMe site before deciding that it was OK because personal gifts are allowed.
Ethics rules for federal employees do include an exception for “gifts based on a personal relationship.”
Gifts motivated by a family relationship are fine but what qualifies as a personal relationship is more complicated. Just because someone is connected on social media, for example, doesn’t necessarily qualify as a “personal relationship.”
Once the federal government reopens, the two ethics experts said the Office of Government Ethics has several options: It could decide that the solicitations are within the rules or it could change the rules. It could also find these employees to be in violation but only admonish them not to do it again.
But the regulations also calls for improper gifts to be returned.
Cole with Issue One said he hopes that the OGE uses “common sense” and compassion in determining what to do.
A partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 when President Donald Trump and Congress could not agree on funding he requested for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Government shutdown: IRS to waive penalties for under-withholding after Trump tax changes
Retroactive pay?: Furloughed workers to get back pay once government shutdown is over