I used to wonder why federal agencies found the need to imprint the following language on all their envelopes:

“Official Business Only – Penalty for Private Use $300”

Then I became a defense attorney and quickly discovered that there are a lot of people in the world who really do need to need that reminder.  Fleecing the taxpayers is a booming enterprise.

Unfortunately for federal employees and contractors, not all misuses of government resources are as obvious as the “Official Business Only” warning.  And there can be severe consequences for those accused of misusing resources, even unintentionally.  Here are a few common examples that federal employees and contractors should keep in mind:

Social Networking, Computer Games, and YouTube While at Work

If you are surfing the web or otherwise not working for an extended period of time, billing the government for that time could land you in hot water.  In this day and age, all federal employees and contractors should assume that their agency or employer is monitoring their computer activity and act accordingly.  Believe it or not, I have seen cases where an employee’s security clearance is revoked for this type of behavior.

Using an Official Vehicle for Personal Business

Have you ever seen a vehicle with U.S. Government plates pull up to a place of business for a seemingly personal matter? Using an official vehicle for personal business is not only bad optics, it is also unethical and a misuse of government resources.

Running a Personal Business While on the Clock

Finally, an issue we see from time-to-time is federal employees or contractors who are “working” while also running a side business from the office.  If the employing agency or contractor can prove its case – which, frankly, is not that challenging in this age of technology – the employee could be facing an allegation of time card fraud.  There are serious criminal and civil penalties that often accompany such behavior; loss of a security clearance is the least of the concerns.

These are broad, perhaps obvious, examples, and I recognize that what constitutes an ethics violation may be confusing or even counter-intuitive at times.  The point is that if you have a question about ethics you should ask your agency or company ethics official before you engage in the conduct.  Unlike many things in life, this is not an area that lends itself to begging for forgiveness.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

Related News

Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://berrylegal.com.