USDA Ethics Rules at a Glance
NOTE: The following HIGHLIGHTS are not meant to be a complete summary of the government-wide and USDA ethics regulations. They are for guidance purposes only; specific details of requirements have been omitted. If you have any specific questions, please review the regulations and the examples given in them. It's important for you to understand these standards of conduct. You should feel free to ask your supervisor or your agency ethics advisor, should you have any questions either after reviewing this material, or at any time you are confronted with an ethical problem. When in doubt, ask!
GIFTS FROM OUTSIDE SOURCES
(Subpart B - 5 CFR 2635.201-205)
- As a Federal employee. you may not accept gifts from a “prohibited source,” or accept gifts given because of your official position, except in certain limited circumstances discussed below. You may never solicit a gift.
- “Prohibited source.” A prohibited source is any person, company or organization which:
- Does business with USDA, or
- Is seeking to do business with USDA, or
- Conducts activities regulated by USDA, or
- Has interests that may be “substantially affected” by the performance or non-performance of your duties, or
- Is an organization a majority of whose members fit any of the above categories.
Non-gifts. Some things are not considered “gifts” and may be accepted. They include:
- Loans and discounts available to the public or to all Federal employees for their private use;
- Inexpensive refreshments such as soft drinks, coffee or donuts;
- Plaques, certificates, and trophies; and
- Rewards and prizes.
- Exceptions. You may accept:
- A gift worth up to $20 per occasion, up to a maximum value of $50 from any source per calendar year.
- Gifts based on close personal relationships.
- Gifts based on outside activities or social events.
- Limitations. You may never accept, even if otherwise permitted as an exception:
- Gifts in return for being influenced in the performance of your official duties;
- Gifts you solicited or coerced; and
- Gifts that are accepted so frequently that a reasonable person might question it.
- Disposition. If you receive a gift not allowable under the standards, you should:
- Return it; or
- Reimburse the donor for the fair market value of the gift; or
- With your supervisor's approval, donate it to charity, destroy it, or share it with the entire office (if it's perishable, such as food).
GIFTS BETWEEN EMPLOYEES
(Subpart C - 5 CFR 2635.301-304)
- Two Rules. You may not:
- Give a gift to your official superior (supervisor or anyone up the chain).
- Accept a gift from any lesser-paid employee.
- Exceptions. Its OK to give or receive a gift under any one of the following circumstances:
- You may accept a gift from a lesser-paid employee who IS NOT your subordinate, AND there is a personal relationship which would justify the gift.
- The gift is for a traditional occasion such as a birthday or Christmas, and is worth $10 or less.
- You receive food or refreshments that are shared at the office.
- A small contribution for a gift on a special occasion like a wedding, or a person leaving for a new job. (the $10 limit does not apply here).
- The gift is in connection with personal hospitality, like a bottle of wine on being invited to someone's home.
CONFLICTING FINANCIAL INTERESTS
(Subpart D - 5 CFR 2635.401-403)
- The rule. You may not participate (i.e., deliberate, decide, or influence the decision of an action affecting the interests of specific persons, or a discrete identifiable class of persons) in particular matter, as part of your official duties, if it would have a direct and predictable effect on your financial interests. OR those of your spouse, minor child, or certain others (outside employer, entities which you serve as officer, director, or trustee, general partner; etc.).
- Acquiring or holding interests. You are not allowed to have any financial interests that might be a conflict of interest with your duties. If you do, it may be necessary to divest them, or disqualify yourself from certain matters. Talk to your agency ethics official for advice.
IMPARTIALITY IN PERFORMING OFFICIAL DUTIES
(Subpart E - 5 CFR 2635.501-503)
- The rule. You shouldn't participate in particular matters involving specific parties that are likely to affect the financial interests of a broader range of people/organizations than those listed in "Conflicting Financial Interests" above. Here you must consider those situations involving close relatives, prospective/former employers, outside associations in which you are active or principal, your spouse's/child's employer, etc. Unlike "Conflicting Financial Interests," this prohibition carries administrative, rather than criminal penalties.
- What to do, If you're in such a situation, or one where a reasonable person might question your impartiality, don't work on that matter until you have informed your supervisor and your agency ethics official about it. Your ethics official will let you know whether you may proceed or not.
SEEKING OTHER EMPLOYMENT
(Subpart F - 5 CFR 2635.601-606)
- Thinking about leaving? If you're seeking employment with a person or company, or have an arrangement concerning future employment with them, then you can't participate in any matter involving that person or company as part of your official duties, if their financial interests could be affected by your performance of your duties.
MISUSE OF POSITION
(Subpart G - 5 CFR 2635.701-705)
- Providing help. If your friends or relatives have any kind of dealing with USDA, you cannot use your position to try to intercede on their behalf and help them.
- Endorsements. You cannot use your position to endorse any product, service or company, except where it is part of your official duties to do so (e.g., a Foreign Agricultural Service official meeting with foreign officials to promote purchase of American products).
- Inside Information. You cannot use nonpublic information (information you receive in the course of your job that is not available to the general public) for the financial gain of yourself or others.
- Property. Generally, government property may only be used for government purposes. This includes government buildings and real estate property, telephones, typewriters, computers (including software and hardware), equipment, supplies, copiers, government vehicles and government-issued credit or charge cards.
There are long-standing exceptions, such as brief use of the government telephone to check on children with a babysitter, or to make a long-distance call with your personal calling card.
Also, employees may make limited use of government office equipment for personal needs if the use does not interfere with official business and involves minimal cost to the Agency. Such use should occur on personal time. A supervisor or manager may revoke or limit this privilege.
There are also exceptions concerning the use of space, equipment (such as computers or copiers), and internal mail distribution systems (including email) on behalf of professional associations. (See 5 CFR §251.202).
Though not technically "government property," you are prohibited from using the contractor-issued U.S. Government travel charge card for other than reimbursable travel expenses outside of your permanent duty location. You may not make personal use of any other government-issued purchase card (credit card).
(Subpart H 5 CFR 2635.801-809)
- The rule. You cannot engage in outside employment or any outside activity if it conflicts with the official duties of your government job.
REMEMBER: If you have any questions, ask your mission area or agency ethics advisor!