Ethics code undergoing changeWASHINGTON -- Federal employees...


Ethics code undergoing change

WASHINGTON -- Federal employees who want to give their bosses a gift may have to keep a close eye on the price tag, if the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) adopts new standards of conduct.

Banning gifts worth more than $10 to supervisors is among 36 pages of proposed regulations that would change the ethics code affecting about 2 million federal workers in the executive branch.

The proposed regulations, announced in yesterday's Federal Register, would completely change the code. Individual agencies now establish their own ethics codes, following several rules that are guidelines for the agencies to build their own ethics codes. The agencies can be more strict but not less so than the government's loose guidelines that an OGE employee called "somewhat crude."

But the newly proposed standards cover everything from giving birthday gifts and accepting plaques to looking for a new job. Agencies would be allowed to supplement these standards, but only with OGE approval. And even at that, each agency's own set of rules of conduct would be issued jointly by the agency and the ethics office.

The proposed change has been in the works for about two years, ever since President Bush authorized an extensive review of ethics laws applicable to all three branches of government. OGE's rules do not affect employees of the judicial or legislative branches, but they do apply to active military officers.

Bush wanted to clarify the often confusing and contradictory federal ethics standards, which permitted certain activities in one executive office but not in another.

Employees have 60 days to comment on the regulations. OGE hopes to adopt the rules by the end of the year.

In addition to the $10 limit on gifts from individual employees to supervisors, the proposed regulations would:

* Prohibit an employee from soliciting or accepting any gift valued at more than $25. In any calendar year, workers would not be able to accept gifts totaling $100 from a single source. Workers now may accept only food and refreshments or promotional items valued at no more than $10.

* Permit the acceptance of greeting cards, plaques, trophies and similar items. Such gifts often are engraved or embossed with the employee's name and not valuable to anyone other than the recipient, the regulations say. Refusing to accept such items "causes needless discomfort to both the employee and the donor," according to OGE.

* Allow employees to accept benefits or discounts available to them only because they are federal employees. Even so, the benefits must be offered to all federal workers. For example, the proposal would forbid the acceptance of discounts offered only to members of the Senior Executive Service.

* Permit voluntary gifts to be given between employees for special occasions, such as weddings and retirements. There would be no limit on the cost of such gifts but the gift would have to be appropriate to the occasion. Federal employees now can't receive any gifts from another employee whose salary is less than theirs.

* Require workers who are looking for a job outside government to disqualify themselves from work on matters affecting the prospective employer.

The National Treasury Employees Union may be one step closer to taking over representation of Social Security Administration employees, who now are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees.

Yesterday, the Federal Labor Relations Authority ruled in favor of NTEU, which has asserted since 1988 that it should represent about 1,000 employees at six SSA service centers around the country. NTEU petitioned the authority two years ago after a management reorganization left AFGE members reporting to managers, who are members of NTEU bargaining units. NTEU is arguing that whatever bargaining unit the supervisor is a member of should be the bargaining unit for all workers under that supervisor.

NTEU president Robert M. Tobias immediately said the decision put the union "one step closer to victory" in taking over representation of SSA employees.

"We believed the reorganization was a major functional change and created the opportunity for affected employees to enjoy NTEU representation," he said. "The wait was worthwhile."

Budget change sought:

AFGE fought on another front last week, continuing its battle to get Congress to move SSA's administrative accounts from the federal budget, as are the rest of the agency's trust funds.

Testifying before a House Government Operations subcommittee, Reggie Endsley, president of an AFGE local in North Carolina, described his increasing frustration with the Office of Management and Budget's treatment of Social Security funds.

AFGE is not alone in its quest to get OMB Director Richard Darman to take the funds out of the budget, thereby eliminating their susceptibility to across-the-board budget cuts in domestic programs.

Endsley said he questions "the logic of expecting the American public to believe that the trust fund is in good shape when SSA cannot afford to answer its own phones."

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