By Pamela A. Dugger, 366th Fighter Wing Legal Office
/ Published October 31, 2013
Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho -- As we approach the holiday season, your wing organization may have started planning for a holiday party. Part of your planning might include raising funds to pay for the festivities. Organizations frequently hold on-base fundraisers and solicit donations from off-base businesses and individuals. You may also intend to ask your co-workers to donate money for the party. However, if you are not aware of some important ethics rules, you can unintentionally violate them. To help you with your planning, we offer the following guidance.
Voluntary Contributions - If you are a commander or supervisor, be careful about encouraging subordinates to contribute money to the unit fund for the holiday party. While government employees may raise funds in their personal capacity, employees may not solicit funds from a subordinate. Not only is a superior prohibited from soliciting funds but the superior shall not coerce the offering of a gift from a subordinate. All contributions to the holiday party fund must be voluntary. Any pressure, subtle or otherwise, on unit members to contribute is prohibited. For the donation to be truly voluntary, an employee must be free to determine the amount of the contribution or make no contribution at all. An employee who declines to contribute should not be excluded from a holiday celebration held in the workplace during business hours. As a commander or supervisor, you must ensure employees who make no contribution are not subject to disparaging remarks, harassment or any negative consequences.
Contractors - Suppose your unit is having a holiday party during the non-duty lunch hour or after work. The party coordinator asks each person attending to pay $5 to cover refreshments and to bring a pot luck dish. Contractor employees working alongside federal employees may attend, pay $5 and bring food because these contributions are not gifts, but a fair share contribution. Again, all contributions must be voluntary with no pressure. Also, this must be non-duty time for the contractor employees.
Solicitations - Ethics rules prohibit federal employees, including uniformed personnel, from directly or indirectly soliciting gifts, prizes, awards and other benefits for themselves and for their organizations in an official capacity. Understanding the key phrases from this restriction will help you avoid violations.
Fundraising - First, "in an official capacity" means being in uniform, or referring to your unit, organization, office, title or authority. Second, you must conduct all fundraising activities in a personal capacity and during your personal time. If you wish to raise funds for your organization's holiday party, you should do it through your unit's private organization or unofficial activity (booster club, sunshine fund, etc). If you solicit funds through your units' private organization or unofficial activity, you must do so without referring to your office, title, position, or authority. In addition, you must not be in uniform.
Finally, you cannot directly solicit from subordinates and cannot personally solicit any entity you know is a "prohibited source." The definition of a "prohibited source" includes any company, organization, or individual who is doing business with the Air Force, who seeks to do business with the Air Force, or who seeks action from the Air Force. You can send a mass produced solicitation letter to a group of local businesses, some of which happen to do business with the Air Force. In contrast, you may not target your solicitation at persons or entities that are prohibited sources.
Solicitations - Consider the following examples of proper and improper solicitations.
Proper - A civilian employee, who is an engineer and assigned to a government organization, visits an off-base restaurant. The restaurant is not a prohibited source. The employee speaks to the manager, saying, "I work for an organization of engineers. My organization will have a holiday party next month. We would like to give away door prizes to the attendees. Are you willing to donate a gift certificate for a free dinner to use as a door prize?" The manager asks, "What organization do you work for?" The civilian employee replies, "My organization has ethics rules that prohibit me from soliciting gifts based on the fact that I work for the organization. This means I can't tell you what organization I work for." The manager responds, "Oh, well, I'm glad to hear you're following your organization's ethics rules. I won't give you a free dinner, but I will let you have a two-for-one coupon for dinner on Tuesday nights. In fact, you can take several." This is a proper solicitation because the civilian employee did it in his personal capacity and did not refer to his office, title, position, or authority.
Improper - An Air Force captain visits an off-base restaurant in uniform. She says to the restaurant owner, "The organization I work for is planning a holiday party. Would you be willing to donate a gift certificate for a free dinner so we can use it as a door prize?" The captain does not mention she is a member of the Air Force and does not say anything about her assigned Air Force unit. Nevertheless, the captain improperly solicited a gift be given because of her official position. Her uniform clearly reflected her military status. If the captain also happened to know the restaurant was prohibited source because it did business with the Air Force, the captain would have violated another ethics rule.
Finally, be sure to submit your fund raising request to 366 FSS in advance of your planned event.
Other Hot Button Issues -
· Generally, office parties are unofficial events, and you may not use appropriated funds to pay for them
· Beware that door prizes or drawings could involve gambling which generally is prohibited by AFI 34-228. If you intend to have a door prize or drawing as a fundraiser or as part of your holiday party, be sure to include this in your application to FSS. We will review it in conjunction with FSS. We may be able to offer suggestions so no violations occur.
Violations of ethics rules can be serious, even if the offender has good intentions. Military members who violate ethics rules can be punished under the U.C.M.J. Civilian employees can receive disciplinary action. Serious offenses can be prosecuted as a crime by the Department of Justice.
Fundraisers and solicitations of donations can be tricky. By following this guidance, you can follow the rules and have a great holiday party. Please remember this guidance only highlights common questions and does not cover every situation. If you have questions or need further information, please contact the legal office at 828-2238. Look for further holiday guidance from our office on Parties, Gifts Exchanges & Other Holiday Ethics Issues.