New ethics rules may limit contact with feds

A proposed ethics rule would bar feds from lobbyist-sponsored social events, but there are plenty of gray areas on what can and can't be done.

New proposed ethics rules for federal employees aim to put the kibosh on their attendance at lobbyist-sponsored social events such as cocktail parties and movie screenings, but there is concern that the rules also may hamper federal employee attendance at a broader range of events, such as industry trade shows.

Currently, federal employees must comply with a Office of Government Ethics gift ban that prohibits accepting gifts valued over $20 from lobbyists, with limited exceptions. Additionally, political appointees are required to comply with a gift ban from lobbyists under an executive order from President Barack Obama in 2009.

Related story:

Study says telework lessens ethics violations

The ethics office published a new proposed rule in the Federal Register on Sept. 13 that limits the exceptions from the gift ban. Since then, policy observers have been trying to figure out just exactly what it means.

Specifically, the rule further restricts gifts to federal employees when those gifts take the form of free registration and attendance, along with food and drink, at “widely-attended gatherings.”

“The Office of Government Ethics has indeed become concerned that some of the exceptions may have been used on occasion to permit gifts, such as attendance at certain events, where the nexus to the purpose of the exception is attenuated at best,” the proposal states.

On the other hand, the ethics office also made clear in the proposal that the new restrictions are not meant to curtail federal attendance at educational and professional development events.

Industry groups have been buzzing with discussions about the new language, while emphasizing that the full impact is not yet clear.

Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, said the goal of the new wording seems to be to shut the door on federal employee attendance at any purely social gathering sponsored by a lobbying organization.

At the same time, there are industry events that constitute “gray areas” in which federal attendance may or may not be affected by the new rules, he added. The effect may depend on how the sponsoring organization is constituted, and each organization is a little different in that regard, Chvotkin said.

Nonetheless, there is widespread concern about the new proposed rule, he added.

“It is generating a lot of discussion and concern for what it might imply. It could chill government and industry collaboration and communication,” Chvotkin said. He said the Professional Services Council was still analyzing whether the rule would impact its activities.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which owns and produces one of the world’s largest large technology trade shows, the new rules “would severely limit the ability of federal government employees to attend events sponsored by industry trade groups,” according to a Sept. 20 news release from the association.

“The government plays an important role in facilitating and even helping host these events as they attract visitors from all over the world, including important government officials from other countries,” Gary Shapiro, CEA president, said in the release. “As we increasingly restrict the ability of government employees to participate in these events we hurt smaller U.S. companies that rely on trade shows to display their wares. If we want to increase our exports, we need government to view these events as part of our national strategy to encourage jobs and exports.”