The first step in figuring out if travel compensation is acceptable or not is determining if the travel is personal or official – required in the carrying out of one’s duties. Certain aspects of travel can crossover with gifting regarding transportation, meals and lodging. Going forward, these will be referred to as travel gifts.
Personal Travel Gift Prohibitions
In general, employees are prohibited from:
- Accepting a travel gift if the person receiving the gift thinks it could affect some performance aspect of their job (i.e. slant their decision on awarding a contract to the person/organization offering the travel gift).
- Soliciting or coercing the offer of a travel gift.
- Accepting travel gifts on such a frequent basis that it could be construed as using an official office for private gain.
However, there are some instances where travel gifts can be accepted, such as when:
- The value of the item has a monetary value of $20 or less; the total value of gifts from the same source cannot exceed $50 in a calendar year. This is the same as it is for gifting.
- The offered travel gift is a result of the employees outside business activities, as could be the case if the employee has a legitimate business on the side not connected with their official position. For example, the employee is a self-employed consultant on the side with clients not associated with the official’s public office.
- The offered gift is a result of the employee spouse’s business activities. Example, an entity offers flight and lodging to fly the spouse and husband/wife to a conference tied to the spouse’s business.
- A prospective employer offers to pay expenses for the individual to attend an interview. For example, if the individual is getting ready to retire and looking for post-employment AND the employer customarily makes the same travel gift offer to other applicants for positions of equal to greater stature.
- Accepting commercial discounts and favorable rates, if the same offer is made to all government or military personnel. A great example of this is getting the government rate on lodging that is commonly available at many hotels.
Because an agency cannot spend more than it has been allocated by Congress in any given fiscal year, there are several statues on the books that allow the acceptance of travel gifts or reimbursement of expenses from non-Federal sources, but not prohibited sources as a way to maximize allocated funds.
For example, an agency or its employees may accept travel, subsistence and related expenses to travel from their official duty station to attend a meeting or conference hosted by the non-Federal entity as long as they are not a prohibited source.
Non-Regulated Travel-Related Items
Some travel items that could be construed as gifts really are not as they are not controlled by the Office of Government Ethics. Three such items that frequently come up in regard to commercial air travel include:
- Frequent flyer miles
- Voluntary relinquishment of seat
Frequent flyer miles
If an individual travels a lot on official business, it is possible to acquire a good quantity of frequent flyer miles. At the federal level, it is not a violation of any ethics rules to accept these miles, and many times the accumulated miles can be used for personal or family travel. Just be sure to check with the employing agency for any local agency restrictions before doing so.
Accepting a seat upgrade, whether offered or asked for, is acceptable as long as it does not incur additional charges to the agency.
Denied boarding or the voluntary relinquishment of a seat
In the case of overbooking, many times volunteers are asked to give up their seat in exchange for a voucher, free flight or some other monetary offer. When not enough volunteers come forward, an individual may be denied boarding.
In the case of volunteering to give up a seat, it can be done, such as traveling on a Sunday for a conference starting on Monday. As long as it does not make the attendee late for the conference by taking a later flight that day, it is not an ethics violation.
However, in the case of volunteering to give up a seat, the additional time spent waiting cannot be charged as travel time, if that is authorized by the employing agency.
Authorized time is limited to the “usual waiting time”, such as waiting at an airport for departure. Volunteering would extend that “usual waiting time” and could not be charged, however, denied boarding could as it was outside the person’s control.
As with gifting, when in doubt seek advice from a supervisor or qualified ethics counselor. It is better to be safe than sorry as ignorance of the rules is not a defense.