September 5, 1996DO-96-036
Designated Agency Ethics Officials, General Counsels and Inspectors General
Stephen D. PottsDirector
Publication of the Final Rule Amending the Widely Attended Gatherings Gift Exception Provision
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recently published a final rule to revise the widely attended gatherings gift exception at 5 C.F.R. § 2635.204(g) of the executive branch Standards of Ethical Conduct regulation (Standards). See 61 Federal Register 42965-42970 (August 20, 1996). The rule will become effective on September 19, 1996. The amendments provide that agencies can authorize their employees to accept gifts of free attendance at such gatherings from persons other than the sponsors and permit authorization for a guest other than the spouse to accompany an employee free of charge. In addition, the amendments clarify the "widely attended gatherings" definition.
The amendments to the regulation stemmed from a 1993 White House determination that agency employees should be permitted to accept invitations to press dinners from nonsponsor news organizations. Shortly after the Standards took effect, the President suspended for six months the application of that portion of § 2635.204(g)(2) that had limited the authority for acceptance of invitations of free attendance at widely attended press dinners to those offered by the sponsor. The suspension, as subsequently extended by the White House, has applied only to the acceptance, with agency approval, of offers of free attendance at press dinners from nonsponsor news organizations, provided that all the other requirements of the regulation were met. The White House also asked OGE to consider revising § 2635.204(g)(2) to allow employees to accept invitations to press dinners from nonsponsors or, in the alternative, to a broader range of widely attended gatherings. Last year, OGE published proposed amendments to the widely attended gatherings gift exception based primarily on the alternative White House request. See 60 Federal Register 31415-31418 (June 15, 1995). With OGE's publication of these final rule amendments, the White House suspension as to press dinners will be superseded once the new, broader OGE amendments become effective on September 19, 1996.
Once effective, the final rule amendments will allow agencies to authorize an employee to accept an unsolicited invitation to various widely attended gatherings (not just press dinners) from a nonsponsor where there has been a determination of agency interest under § 2635.204(g)(3) and where more than 100 persons are expected to attend the event and the gift of free attendance has a market value of $250 or less. The additional requirements for a nonsponsor gift are designed to ensure that acceptance of such a gift is in the best interest of the agency concerned and does not involve any appearance of undue influence or loss of impartiality. Under § 2635.204(g)(2) as originally issued, an employee could accept an unsolicited gift of free attendance at all or part of a widely attended gathering from only the sponsor of the event, subject to a determination of agency interest.
Additionally, under the amendments, agencies will be able to authorize an employee to accept free attendance for one accompanying guest at an event the employee is authorized to attend. Such authority for a guest's free attendance is subject to the conditions that others in attendance will generally be accompanied by a spouse or other guest and that the gift is from the same person who invited the employee. See paragraph (g)(6) of § 2635.204 as amended. Under the version of that provision as originally promulgated, only the accompanying spouse of an employee could so attend free of charge. In cases involving a nonsponsor invitation, the value of the guest's free attendance must be aggregated with that of the employee's in determining whether the $250 cap is met (see new Example 2 following paragraph (g)(6) of § 2635.204 as amended).
The final rule amendments also clarify that widely attended gatherings are those events expected to be attended by a large number of persons and at which persons with a diversity of views or interests are expected to be present. See the second sentence of paragraph (g)(2) of § 2635.204 as amended and new Example 3 following paragraph (g)(6) thereof. A copy of the rulemaking document is attached; it is also available on OGE's electronic bulletin board TEBBS. The TEBBS version reflects the correction of a few minor typographical errors which will soon be made in the Federal Register.