Armstrong: Is ethics this difficult?

If you thought procurement rules were complex, take a look at the ethics rules

If you are a vendor who sells to the government, there is nothing better than getting a call from a federal executive who has heard your company's commercial on the radio during the popular morning drive time. You would love getting that call -- except, perhaps, when that official works for the Office of Government Ethics.

Juniper Networks got such a call after running a radio ad offering lunch to a team whose chief agreed to listen to the company's sales pitch. It might have been great marketing, but it ran afoul of the federal rules about gifts from outside sources.

Understanding those rules is a specialty that requires years to learn. They are so arcane that lawyers and Chaucer scholars would feel right at home with them. The ethics rules are interlaced with other rules about accepting travel from nonfederal sources and exceptions that are invoked for "widely attended gatherings."

Lou Anne Brossman, Juniper's federal marketing director, managed to resolve the issues with the ethics office and decided to share her hard-learned lesson.

Recently, Eva Neumann, president of ENC Marketing, invited Gregg Burgess, associate general counsel at the Office of Government Ethics, to explain to a sizable group of marketers what vendors can -- and cannot -- do under federal rules.

As a believer in good and fair government, I listened eagerly. By the end, I concluded that the rules are ridiculous -- almost as ridiculous as the arcane procurement regulations that existed before Congress repealed the Brooks Act.

Nobody thinks that any government official at any level can be bought for $20, do they? That is the limit a government official can accept under current gift rules. In fact, recent history shows us that it requires considerably more -- jobs for oneself and one's children, at least.

Why $20? Someone explained to me that $20 will buy an anniversary dinner in Kansas. That might be the case, but it doesn't buy much more than a hot dog at a sidewalk stand in Manhattan.

The rules on gifts are so complicated it would make the Internal Revenue Service blush. For example, if you attend a conference at the government's expense, you must turn over to the government any tchotchkes you win or accept. If all government employees who accept pens and T-shirts must turn them over, where is the knickknack warehouse?

According to the rules, if the conference organizer presents you with a bag of goodies worth more than $20, then you must turn the bag and its contents over to the government. However, if you bring your own bag and collect each piece individually from different booths, you can keep it all.

The rules are meant to provide clear and simple guidance, but what we have is another version of lawyers' full employment plan. Nobody can figure the rules out, so many just ignore them.

And we haven't even discussed participating in golf tournaments or serving on boards of organizations everyone agrees are good for government -- let alone golf trips to Scotland in private jets.

A government official recently told me the story of an argument he had several years ago on this issue. One person said the government's approach to ethics made something trivial seem important. The other said, "No, it makes something important appear trivial." They decided they were both right.

Therein lies the problem. The government's approach reduces something important and vital to a trivial process that employs hundreds of people checking all the wrong things.

Armstrong is Federal Computer Week's publisher.

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