Ethical failures can get employees in legal 'hot water'

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- March is Ethical Awareness month, an annual event educating public professionals about ethical issues and giving them a chance to review the Code of Federal Regulation's 14 Principles of Ethical Conduct all public servants are bound to follow.

We often hear clients telling us to "find a way to get to 'yes,'" or asking, "This is how we've been running this event for 10 years so why is it a problem now?" If there is legal way to get to "yes," or to keep longstanding processes in place, it can and should be done. But, if there is not a way to get to "yes," providing a "no" answer helps protect government employees from ethical violations.

Public servants are liable for their own ethical violations - many of them involving criminal sanctions-- even if advice from their ethics counselor was incorrect. This makes a review of the ethical principles and the Joint Ethics Regulation critical for government employees.
The Defense Department updates its Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure for use as a training resource, citing various ethical violations that have occurred, so you might not be surprised when you hear about others getting into legal "hot water" after committing grievous ethical violations.

For example, two DOD employees were caught claiming overpayment for official travel after claiming hotel reimbursement for a night they were actually on a plane to Germany, and reimbursement for a night they returned home to sleep in their own beds.

Other public servants visited tourist attractions on the government's dime, drove 500 miles in a government rental car and claimed reimbursement for fuel costs, lodging and per diem.

Cheating on travel vouchers in a premeditated manner is clearly criminal, but some ethical violations are just as obvious -- and it's these that deserve more attention.

Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution and law and ethical principles above private gain. Private gain is interpreted broadly and covers an array of activities.

At the Academy, we often see requests involving the use of gift funds to pay for meals, conference attendance and travel. Having gift funds available to fund certain events can create more complicated ethical issues with regard to making decisions about, for example, who is allowed to attend certain events, such as spouses of military members, the appropriate number of department employees, and etc. Sure, the funds have been gifted, but there are still rules laying out appropriate and inappropriate uses of gift funds.
And, even though gift funds are used to fund a temporary deployment, it's still inappropriate to extend those TDYs to visit tourist attractions.

Private gain can also emerge through wasting or misusing government time, resources or position. A senior officer at the U.S. Military Academy misused his position by having subordinates perform personal tasks, such as having staff work at private dinners and charity events and feeding a friend's cat. As a result of the misuse of his position, the officer was required to reimburse his staffers, since the events they worked were not official functions. He also received a written memorandum of concern. Risky application of the ethical rules makes an employee so vulnerable to actually breaking the rules that even the attempt is not worth the risk to the employee's career and reputation.

Another example involves current and future employment outside the DOD. In this era of ongoing force-management, looking for alternate employment may be a necessity. One Principle of Ethical Conduct says employees shall not engage in outside employment or activities, including seeking or negotiating for employment conflicting with official government duties and responsibilities.

Does this mean government employees are prohibited from looking for work while still employed with the DOD? No, but there are certain things they must not do while job searching.

For example, it's not permissible to use time during government-funded official travel to interview with potential employers. A prior administrator with the Health and Human Services Department, under the guise of traveling on official government business, was caught interviewing with potential employers. Even if these trips were set up for conducting official government business, the administrator's interviews with potential employers gave the appearance he was using his government position for personal gain. For this, the public servant was required to reimburse the government for the cost of the trips -- approximately $10,000.

What if you gain employment with a DOD contractor to officially begin after you leave the DOD? Employment during terminal leave is considered off-duty employment and government employees are required to obtain prior written approval before working while on terminal leave. In addition, the U.S. Code prohibits us from representing new employers before any department, agency or employee of the federal government.
These examples demonstrate how complex the ethical principles and the JER can be in everyday practice.
If you have questions about an ethics issue or even a potential ethics issue, play it safe by reading through the ethical principles and the JER, and seek guidance from your local ethics counselor.