Trade shows could be off-limits under new rule

Proposed ethics rules for federal employees are even more sweeping and complicated than they first appeared and would make industry trade shows off limits to all federal workers, according to an expert analyst.

The Office of Government Ethics published the new prohibitions on gifts, which include invitations to some industry events, in a Federal Register notice on Sept. 13. One of its goals was to prohibit federal employee attendance at lobbyist-sponsored social events such as cocktail parties and movie screenings.

But the proposal bars attendance at most trade shows, limiting federal employees’ access to new technologies often showcased at those events, said Jim Clarke, senior vice president of public policy for the American Society of Association Executives.

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New ethics rule restricts federal employee attendance at industry events

“We are upset that the rule dismisses the programs and seminars of trade associations, even though those jobs, industries and innovations are important to the economy,” Clarke said. The association also has published an overview of the proposed rule.

Federal employees currently comply with a gift ban that prohibits accepting any gifts from lobbyists valued over $20, with exceptions that previously allowed participating in widely attended gatherings. Additionally, political appointees are required to comply with a gift ban under an executive order from President Barack Obama in 2009.

The new proposal puts additional restrictions on attendance at industry events. There are still exceptions made for professional development and educational events, and for any events at which the federal employee is scheduled to speak to share government information.

The rule is very complicated, with some challenging language, Clarke said. For example, there are provisions that apply only to certain types of organizations that use the 501c(6) designation in the U.S. tax code.

“In our experience, that is unique,” Clarke said. “We have never seen a 501c(6) designation split in that fashion.” Typically, if a legal or ethics provision applies to one type of 501c(6) organization, it applies to all types within the 50ac(6) category, he said.

That split is causing some confusion as to how it will be interpreted in practice, he added. “The language is not totally clarifying,” Clarke said.

Clarke said industry executives have had a strong reaction to the new proposal, and many are mobilizing efforts to amend it and writing comments to the government ethics office to that effect.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, said many industry executives are concerned that because the language in the ethics rule is not clear, federal agencies will tend to err on the conservative side and may severely ban attendance at industry events.

“When something is confusing, the default setting is generally ‘no,’” Soloway said.

Previously, other industry executives also have raised concerns about the impact of the proposal on their events.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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