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Commentary | Dec. 9, 2009

Legally speaking: Air Force gift exchanges, ethics

By Capt. Eric Morley Assistant Staff Judge Advocate at the Langley Law Center

With the holidays quickly approaching, we are entering the season of giving gifts. While exchanging gifts can be a joyous way to celebrate, gift giving is limited by ethical rules.

Gifts Between Department of Defense Personnel

What kind of gift can I or my office give to my boss? Or what kind of gift can I give to my subordinate? Of course, not every exchange is a gift. Modest items of food, such as a cup of coffee or a slice of cake, are not gifts, provided it does not create the appearance of impartiality or favoritism. Similarly, a greeting card is not considered a gift because it has minimal value. The general rule is that gifts should not be offered or exchanged between supervisors and subordinates.

On an occasional basis, such as the holidays, items worth $10 or less may be given. For special occasions, such as a marriage, birth of a child, retirement, or permanent change of station, employees may solicit contributions from a group, but may not solicit more than $10 per person. A DoD employee may accept a gift from a group that includes subordinates if it is appropriate because the special occasion is a retirement, resignation, or permanent transfer, and the gift is linked to the tour-of-duty and commemorates the service of the departing individual. These gifts cannot exceed $300 in value.

Gifts must truly be voluntary, and must not give the appearance of improper influence or unprofessional relationships. Exchanging items without significant value, like snacks or cards, becomes problematic if they compromise the professionalism of the work center.

Gifts From Outside Sources

It is never appropriate to solicit or accept a gift because of your official position or to accept a gift from a prohibited source unless there is an exception. A prohibited source is a person or organization that seeks official action by the Air Force or has interests that are affected by you when you do your job. Defense contractors are prohibited sources. Once such exception is the $20/50 Rule. Under this exception, you may accept a gift from a prohibited source valued up to $20 on a single occasion, not to exceed $50 during a calendar year from the same source. The gift may not be cash and may not create the appearance that you used your public office for private gain. Even if an exception exists, it is inappropriate to accept gifts if it appears you are using your public office for private gain. Discounts offered by businesses to military members are typically not considered "gifts" provided it is a discount available to all military personnel.

As public servants, military members and federal employees have an obligation to avoid being unfairly influenced and to avoid the appearance of unfair influence, whether through subordinate-supervisor gift giving or by accepting gifts from outside sources.
As this year's White House holiday theme suggests, the holiday season should be a time to "Reflect, Rejoice and Renew," but it must be done within the ethical rules so as to preserve professionalism and impartiality.

Each situation is unique, and before giving or accepting gifts, it is always a good idea to speak with an ethics advisor at the Langley Law Center by calling 764-3277.