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‘Tis the season for holiday gift giving guidelines

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- With the holidays approaching, Tinker employees need to be mindful of gift-giving policies.

"The holiday season is traditionally a time of parties, receptions, and exchanging gifts. However, even at the holiday season the standards of Conduct apply," advises the Department of Defense Standards of Conduct Office, Office of General Counsel.

Tinker has a diverse workforce of military, civilian and contract employees. While many of them may view gift giving as simply a token of appreciation or friendship, federal employees must be cognizant of the rules regarding such matters.

It is imperative that federal employees not give the appearance of using a position of trust for personal gain.

As a general rule, federal personnel may not accept a gift from a "prohibited source," which includes anyone who does or seeks to do business with the government, such as a contractor; seeks official action by the government; conducts activities regulated by the government; or has interests that may be "substantially affected" by the employee's performance of duty.

The "$20/$50" rule is a general guideline that will apply in most contractor employee giving situations: A federal employee may accept a non-cash gift from a contractor employee so long as it is not valued at more than $20. The employee may accept other gifts throughout the year from that particular person so long as the combined sum does not exceed $50.

In addition, federal personnel may accept a gift, even from a contractor employee, if it is based on a "bona fide personal relationship" -- e.g., a friend or someone you know through family. In those instances the gift must be purchased by the employee rather than the contractor.

Federal personnel may attend social events that are sponsored by non-prohibited sources if admission is free (most holiday receptions and open-houses, for example).

Federal personnel may generally attend an open-house or reception, and accept any refreshments, if it is a widely attended gathering and the employee's supervisor authorizes the employee to attend the event. In addition, federal employees may accept invitations, even from contractors, if the event is open to the public, to all government employees, or to all military personnel.

Refreshments consisting of soft drinks, coffee, pastries, or similar refreshments not constituting a meal, may be accepted since they are not considered to be a gift.
A supervisor may accept personal hospitality at the residence of a subordinate if it is customarily provided on the occasion, and there are no restrictions on an employee accepting an invitation from a supervisor or co-worker to attend a party, open-house or reception.

As a general rule, supervisors may not accept gifts from subordinates or federal personnel who are paid less than them. However, during holidays, supervisors are permitted to accept non-cash gifts valued at $10 or less from a subordinate.

There are no legal restrictions on gifts given to peers or to subordinates -- but common sense and good taste should be exercised.

Gifts from contractors -- even during the holidays -- may not exceed $20. As for gifts to contractors, check first, since many contractors have codes of ethics that may preclude acceptance of gifts.

Another general rule: Office parties are unofficial events and therefore employees are forbidden from using appropriated funds to pay for them. Use of appropriated funds to buy and send greeting cards also is prohibited.

Be aware that door prizes, raffles or drawings could involve gambling, which requires compliance with state statutes and federal regulations.

Sometimes an office schedules a holiday party during the non-duty lunch hour or after work, and each person attending is asked to pay, say, $5 to cover the cost of refreshments and to bring a pot-luck dish or dessert. Contractor employees may attend, pay the $5 and bring food; these contributions are deemed to be a fair-share contribution, not gifts. However, neither contractors nor Department of Defense employees can be forced to pay a cover charge to a holiday party.

If an office wants to give the supervisor a gift, it is impermissible to solicit other employees for contributions to a group gift; in addition, contractor employees cannot be asked to contribute anything, because that is considered soliciting a gift from a prohibited source.

If your office wants to exchange gifts at a party, there are no monetary limits on the gifts if the gifts are chosen at random or are traded, such as during a "white elephant" gift exchange. Gift exchanges in which employees buy gifts for other employees whose names are drawn at random "are more troublesome," the Standards of Conduct Office notes.

For guidance in those instances, or about any reception, party or gift exchange, contact the 72nd Air Base Wing's Staff Judge Advocate's Office at 739-5811.