Photo by Steve Jurvetson

The new rules were drafted by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and would amend current regulations governing standards of ethical conduct for executive branch employees that limit all government officials from accepting gifts from registered lobbyists and lobbying organizations.

While the Obama administration imposed tighter gift restrictions on political appointees shortly after the president took office in January 2009, there has always been an exception in the rules that allowed government officials to attend widely attended events where it’s determined that attendance is in the interest of the federal government. The exception is important, in the view of ASAE and others, because it allows political appointees and other government employees to attend conferences, seminars and other substantive events where there is a clear nexus to the government’s interest.

In its proposed rules, OGE acknowledges that widely attended gatherings can provide “legitimate educational or professional development benefit that furthers the interests of an agency,” and proposes to exclude “nonprofit professional associations, scientific organizations and learned societies” from the definition of registered lobbyist or lobbying organization.

Under these rules, government officials could accept an invitation from a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization to attend a training or professional development program, but not a “purely social event,” such as gala balls, fundraisers and parties. The rules go on, however, to specifically ban government officials from attending any widely-attended gathering sponsored by a trade association.

“Trade associations may sponsor educational activities for their members and even the public, but the primary concern of such associations generally is not the education and development of members of a profession or discipline, which is the focus of the proposed exclusion,” the OGE proposed rules say.

OGE explains in the rules that free attendance at an event may not directly influence an official, but the administration recognizes the “cultivation of familiarity and access that a lobbyist may use in the future to obtain a more sympathetic hearing for clients.”

The proposed rules would not appear to prevent government officials from accepting free attendance to education programs in connection with official speaking engagements. OGE does not consider an invitation to speak as a gift, but rather a customary and necessary part of the administration official’s duties.

The proposed rules would also eliminate the “de minimis” exception for lobbyist gifts, valued at $20. OGE said the administration is following the ethics rules adopted by the House and Senate in 2007’s Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) by restricting government employees from accepting lunch or any gift of any value from a registered lobbyist or lobbying organization.

This latest round of restrictions from the Obama administration follows earlier steps to prevent lobbyists from discussing stimulus projects with agency officials or serving on agency advisory boards and commissions.

The OGE’s proposed rules were published in the Federal Register on Sept. 13. To read the proposed rules in their entirety, click here: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-09-13/pdf/2011-23311.pdf. OGE is accepting written comments on the proposed rules before Nov. 14, 2011. Comments can be emailed to usoge@oge.gov. Please include the reference “Proposed Amendments to Part 2635” in the subject line of the message.

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