Widely Attended Gatherings (WAG), and Free Attendance
A "Widely Attended Gathering" is a meeting, conference, or other event which is attended by either a large number of people from throughout an industry or profession, or by those representing a wide range of interests. The ethics issue involved concerns those instances when an employee is invited to a Widely Attended Gathering (WAG) and offered free attendance. An offer of free attendance is considered a gift. The WAG exception to the gift prohibition permits free attendance at certain widely attended gatherings. Obtaining permission to accept these gifts protects the employee from possible accusations of accepting inappropriate gifts.
Speaking/Presenting with Free Attendance on Presentation Day
Employees may accept free attendance on the day of their presentation when it is provided by the sponsor of the event. The free attendance on the day of the presentation may include a waiver of all or part of the conference or other fee, or the provision of food, refreshments, entertainment, instruction and materials furnished to all attendees as an integral part of the event. It does not include travel expenses, lodgings, entertainment that is collateral to the event, or meals other than those taken in a group setting with all other attendees. Free attendance on the day of an official speech or participation is not considered a gift to the individual or to the agency, and no WAG form is needed. Your IC may require approval via the official duty activity request memo. Free attendance/waived registration fee on other days is a gift and requires approval via the WAG form (available on the Ethics Forms page). For non-local meetings where you are on a travel order, approval is obtained via the sponsored travel mechanism. Deputy Ethics Counselors and Ethics Coordinators can provide additional information.
Attendance at Widely Attended Gatherings (Non-speaking days or events)
Employees may accept an unsolicited gift of free attendance at all or appropriate parts of a widely attended gathering of mutual interest to a number of parties from the sponsor of the event when an authorized ethics official determines that the employee's attendance is in the agency's interest because it will further agency programs and operations. See Determination of Agency Interest below. Although there is no required number of attendees, an event must be widely attended to qualify under this rule. Attendees must represent a diversity of interests, so smaller gatherings may not qualify.
Under the Widely Attended Gathering determination, free attendance may include a waiver of all or part of the conference or other fee or the provision of food, refreshments, entertainment, instruction and materials furnished to all attendees as an integral part of the event. Free attendance does not include travel expenses, lodgings, entertainment collateral to the event, or meals taken other than in a group setting with all other attendees. Unless the government has traveled the employee to the location for business or professional reasons, travel, necessary lodging, and other expenses are to be borne by the employee.
If someone other than the sponsor invites the employee AND bears the cost of the employee's attendance through a contribution or other payment intended to facilitate that employee's attendance, neither the invitation nor the cost of the employee's attendance are considered to be provided by the sponsor. Rather, in this case, the invitation and cost are considered to be from the entity actually providing the financial support. Payment of dues or a similar assessment to a sponsoring organization does not constitute a payment intended to facilitate the attendance of a particular employee. For invitations from non-sponsors of the event, more than 100 persons must be expected, and the market value of the free attendance must not exceed $350 (employee plus guest, if invited).
Accompanying Spouse or Other Guest
When other attendees will generally be accompanied by a spouse or other guest, AND if the invitation for the guest is from the same person who invited the employee, the agency may authorize an employee to accept an unsolicited invitation of free attendance to an accompanying spouse or other guest to participate in all or a portion of the event at which the employee's free attendance is permitted. For invitations from the sponsor of the event, there is no limit on the market value of the free attendance. For invitations from a non-sponsor, the gift of free attendance is limited to a market value of $350 or less. Market value for non-sponsor support includes the market value of the attendance of the employee, plus the market value of a spouse or other guest. Thus, the total value of the attendance of the employee and the guest must not exceed $350.
Attendance at Activities Collateral to Another Event
Frequently, organizations plan receptions and other events to coincide with professional meetings hosted by another entity or group.. Events which are part of the meeting but supported by other organizations are not considered separate events. For example, the afternoon break may be sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. That is part of the professional meeting, not a separate event. If the same pharmaceutical company held a reception one evening that was not considered part of the professional meeting, e.g., not planned or managed by the organization which planned the professional meeting, an employee needs permission to attend. Each collateral event must be widely attended and must be separately evaluated for appropriateness and agency interest. If an employee attends a professional meeting and discovers upon arrival that other non-meeting events are being held, the employee must carefully weigh the criteria for a WAG. The employee could call his/her IC's Deputy Ethics Counselor or Ethics Coordinator to obtain permission, or the employee could decide to attend and immediately upon return to the office, contact the DEC or EC to document attendance.
Determination of Agency Interest
The agency DEC (or designee) must determine that attendance at a widely attended gathering is in the agency's interest, and that determination may be written or oral, depending on the circumstances. Relevant factors to consider in making this determination include:
- the importance of the event to the agency;
- the nature and sensitivity of any pending matter affecting the interests of the person who extended the invitation;
- the significance of the employee's role in any such matter;
- the purpose of the event;
- the identify of other expected participants; and
- the market value of the gift of free attendance.
The agency determination may be issued to cover multiple employees whose duties similarly affect the interests of the person who extended the invitation or, where that "person" is an association or organization, of its members.
- Written Finding: The agency determination must be in writing when the person who extended the invitation:
- has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee's official duties,
- is an association or organization the majority of whose members have such interests.
- Written Determination: The agency determination must reflect that the:
- Employee's attendance is in the agency interest because it will further agency programs and operations; and/or
- Agency's interest in the employee's participation in the event outweighs concern that acceptance of the gift of free attendance may or may appear to improperly influence the employee in the performance of his/her official duties (review Relevant Factors above).
For additional information, contact your IC's Ethics Officials (see links below).