Nov. 14, 2011
Reform Groups Urge Ethics Office to Strengthen and Adopt Restrictions on Special Interest Gift-Giving to Executive Branch
Too Many Loopholes Exist in Current Gift Rules, Groups Tell Agency
Washington, D.C. – The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) should adopt stronger restrictions against gift-giving by special interest groups to officers and employees of the executive branch, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG said today in comments sent to the agency.
In response to new rulemaking called for by President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13490, OGE is proposing clamping down on some of the existing loopholes in the current gift rules. These have allowed people with business pending before an agency from offering free gifts of food, entertainment and travel to agency employees. Obama’s executive order banned many such gifts from lobbyists and lobbying organizations to presidential appointees, but it does not extend to career employees. OGE, the agency responsible for implementing ethics rules for the executive branch, recognizes key differences between presidential appointees and career employees, and appropriately modifies extending the gift restrictions.
As noted in the comments:
“Our organizations strongly agree with OGE’s assessment that the two general prohibitions – ‘prohibited sources’ (those with business pending before the agency) and ‘employee’s official position’ – can effectively capture the problem areas of undue influence peddling through gifts, if they are properly interpreted and enforced. Appropriately, the proposal does not add lobbyists and lobbying organizations as a third general prohibition on gifts, but instead narrows the exceptions to the gift rule available to prohibited sources who are also lobbyists or lobbying organizations, focusing on two exceptions in particular – the widely attended gathering exception, and the $20 per gift/$50 aggregate limit exception – where the opportunities for abuse are most ripe.”
At the same time, the groups urged OGE not to follow through with the proposed blanket exception to the gift rule for 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups. Any lobbying entity may create such a group on paper and funnel gift-giving through its 501(c)(3) wing.
“We are now seeing that this exemption is increasingly being abused by lobbying shops as a means to evade the travel restrictions (in Congress). Lobbying entities have figured out that they can simply create a 501(c)(3) wing of the lobbying organization, even if it is just on paper, and funnel money through the 501(c)(3) to pay for unrestricted travel junkets for members and staff.”
Instead of a blanket exception, the groups encouraged OGE to maintain the integrity of the gift restrictions for any organization “established, financed or directed” by a lobbying entity that has business pending before the executive branch agency.
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.