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Robert Longley

No Emoluments for You, Federal Employees

By April 11, 2013

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In case any government employees have forgotten that they are prohibited by law from accepting emoluments -- gifts of money or valuable items from foreign governments - the Department of Defense (DoD) is happy to remind them.

In a 17-page White Letter, the Defense Department Standards of Conduct Office reminds all DoD civilian and military employees that Article I, Section 9 (clause eight) of the U.S. Constitution prohibits all employees of the federal government - including active and retired military personnel - from accepting paid positions or any item of value from a foreign government without the consent of Congress.

"This little known provision, the 'Emoluments Clause,' is still in effect today and applies to Federal civilian employees and active-duty military personnel. It also applies to retired military officers and enlisted personnel from the active and reserve components including military officers, enlisted retirees and retired Reservists," warns the DoD white paper.

Clearly, the purpose of the "Emoluments Clause" is to prevent foreign governments from influencing U.S. government actions or policy.

Examples of "emoluments," according to the white paper, would include "compensation in the form of honoraria (pay), travel expenses, household goods shipments at employer's expense, housing allowances, and gifts from a foreign state, except as authorized by Congress."

Congress had authorized some exceptions through the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act. The law allows federal personnel to accept gifts valued at $350 or less; travel paid for by a foreign government, provided that none of the travel takes place leaving from or coming back to the United States; and meals and lodging provided by a foreign government while overseas.

Seems simple enough, but as the white paper points out, "potential traps" abound. "There are several types of scenarios in which an employee will be deemed to have received an emolument where the payment is indirectly received from a foreign state," it says. "Such scenarios include consulting, law, or other partnership distributions, as well as payments (such as salary) from domestic professional corporations. Federal personnel, especially retired military personnel, need to be aware of these potential traps for the unwary."

Further clouding the issue, the emoluments prohibition extends to compensation and gifts from businesses or public universities - including those located in the United States -- that are partially or wholly owned or controlled by foreign governments, which could be considered an arm of that government.

The white paper recommends that all federal personnel get advanced approval from their agency or branch of the military before accepting anything that might violate the emoluments law.

Penalties: Improper acceptance of gifts or compensation creates a debt on the part of the U.S. government to the foreign government involved. Federal personnel who improperly accept such gifts may be required to pay this debt. In addition, U.S. federal personnel who take any oath of allegiance to a foreign government may have their U.S. citizenship revoked.

Also See:
Who Oversees Ethics in Government?
Code of Ethics for U.S. Government Service

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