Attention! Ethics office has new ‘free attendance’ guidelines

No matter how crummy airline service gets, how expensive hotels get or how capable online meeting software becomes, people still crave meeting people in person. Attendance at conferences, conventions and trade shows numbers in the hundreds of millions a year. When wandering through the old Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, I always used to think, there will always be business in shoelaces and heels.

In the government market, GovEvents.com lists 39 events just in the D.C. environs over the next month or so. Trade groups, lobbying outfits, associations, vendors, and even agencies themselves stage events open to federal employees. In recent years, the trend in for-profit organizations — principally publishers and vendors — is to let feds attend free. They learned years ago, it’s easier and more profitable to let sponsors — advertisers or business partners — pay for the events rather than try to get feds to cajole $195 or $395 or whatever out of agency tightwads.

The Office of Government Ethics keeps an eye on all of this. It has a longstanding policy about the “gift” of free attendance, which often comes with a nice breakfast or lunch and tchotchkes off vendor tables. OGE generally allows attendance on the grounds that it’s not a directed gift to a single person or small group, but available as a “widely attended gathering.” The policy acknowledges that typically one or more feds make presentations at these events, updating attendees on programs or policies, so it’s in the agency’s interest to be there.

Events staged by associations and trade groups are typically planned by business development, marketing and sales people from member companies. They want exposure to the federal attendees. Not to pitch them directly, but to find out what they’re thinking and even to set up appointments. Attending feds look at it as a fair opportunity to do market research and connect with peers. Everybody understands the ground rules and points of etiquette. Like when you make it to the head of the line waiting to talk to a CIO, don’t chew his or her ear off for 20 minutes.

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OGE on Tuesday issued follow-up guidance so federal employees can determine who the real sponsor of their attendance is. More precisely, so picky ethics officers can rule on who the sponsor is.

When I spotted this, I thought, “Oh no! At how many events have hosts given acknowledgment to bronze, silver and gold ‘partners?'” (In recent years, categories have expanded to ever more precious minerals. Now they’ve got platinum, titanium, diamond, kryptonite, vibranium and adamantium sponsors.)

But not to worry. OGE finds that, so long as the hosting organization is the main organizer and planner of content, and it meets the existing widely attended criterion, it likely qualifies as the sponsor. That means you’re okay even if the event had paid partners, but the offer of attendance comes from the sponsor. I say “likely” because OGE cautions ethics officers to consider the “totality of the circumstances” in determining the real sponsor and the actual offeror of free attendance.

What OGE rules out is this type of situation: An association stages the event. Attendance requires payment. A member company buys five seats, then offers them to government customers. That’s a no-no because the “source of a gift is a non-sponsor,” has specific cash value and isn’t offered widely.

It follows similar reasoning why so many seats in vendor suites at FedEx Field or the Verizon Center go to everyone but federal customers. Feds know they can’t accept a $175 seat and all the beer that comes with it.

The new guidance also raises a question about charitable and for-profit awards banquets where every seat is paid for. Can a vendor buy a table of 10 seats for $5,000 or $10,000 then offer federal customers a free seat at its table? Better check it out.

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