Ask the Ethicist

Holidays and contractor gratuities

From Fermilab Today, December 18, 2009

Gary M. Leonard
Gary M. Leonard

As the holidays of December and January draw upon us, it is common for business associates to send gifts to valued customers. I take this opportunity to remind all of you that acceptance of a gift or gratuity from a prospective or current Fermilab vendor is against laboratory policy. Generally, the laboratory's code of conduct, found in the Director's Policies Manual, clearly states that: "Employees shall not accept any gratuity, gift or special favor from individuals or organizations …"

The general rule is that you should refuse or return gratuities and gifts. The reason for this rule and the laboratory's policy on this issue is that Fermilab, as a government-funded laboratory, wishes to avoid any appearance of impropriety (such as favoritism) due to the acceptance of a gratuity or gift from a current or prospective contractor. As recipients of public funding, we must do all we can to ensure that we earn the highest degree of public trust. The laboratory policy on gratuities and gifts is there to help guide us in earning that trust.

Please feel free to Ask the Ethicist if you have a question concerning this policy either as it pertains to holiday gratuities and gifts or to any gratuity and/or gift.

Fraud, waste & abuse and the Recovery Act

From Fermilab Today, August 28, 2009

Gary M. Leonard
Gary M. Leonard

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will provide Fermilab with $103.1 million. The discovery and reporting of fraud, waste and abuse that involves misuse or mismanagement of Recovery Act funds is a high priority for the federal government.

As a recipient of stimulus funds, it is our duty to ensure that any report of fraud, waste and abuse is addressed in an appropriate and prompt manner.

The Web site and poster provide information on how to report allegations, as well as "whistleblower" protections for individuals making disclosures concerning fraud, waste and abuse.

An example of fraud could involve an individual bribing an official to get a federal contract. This act wastes taxpayers' money because the best contractor for the job wouldn't get hired. It also abuses the official's power by taking personal gains over public trust.

Fermilab has always had programs against fraud, waste and abuse and will continue to uphold the same high ethical standards for stimulus funds. These programs instruct employees and users how to report misuse of federal funds as well as concerns regarding public health or safety. "Whistleblower" protections ensure that you cannot be discharged, demoted or otherwise discriminated against as a reprisal for reporting an incident of fraud, waste and abuse.

If you see fraud, waste or abuse of Recovery Act funds, please be prepared to provide the identity of the violator, corroborating information or persons, as well as a description of the documentary or physical evidence.

If you would like more information or wish to report an allegation, please contact my office at x3252 or e-mail While anonymous complaints are welcome, please understand that a lack of sufficient and specific information may lead to an inability to investigate the allegation.

The ethicist within

From Fermilab Today, February 20, 2009

Jameson Eisenmenger
Jameson Eisenmenger

Last week an employee posed an ethical problem. This person authorizes several requisitions each week. This person’s spouse holds a position with a vendor with whom requisitions could occasionally be placed. The employee was concerned that the spouse’s position with the vendor could result in a conflict of interest if the requisitions are filled.

This is a good example of an ethical dilemma and solution because the employee recognized a problem and took steps towards crafting a solution. First, the employee correctly diagnosed a potential conflict of interest. Under laboratory policy, placing requisitions with a company in which the employee’s spouse plays a role could present an actual or apparent conflict of interest. View the policy here.

Second, the employee promptly and proactively notified his or her supervisor. Third, the employee and supervisor developed an action plan to deal with the possible conflict. They agreed to elevate any requisitions with the spouse’s company to the employee’s supervisor. Finally, they discussed the potential conflict and proposed action plan with the Legal Office.

The employee thought to take these steps after reading the Ask the Ethicist column. The column triggered the ethicist within. If you have ethics questions, please contact the Legal Office at x3252 or e-mail questions to

FRA Ethic Program

From Fermilab Today, December 5, 2008

Gary M. Leonard
Gary M. Leonard

Do you have an ethical conundrum relating to your work at Fermilab? To help clear up any ethical questions at the laboratory, staff attorney Jameson Eisenmenger and I will address ethics questions in a monthly Fermilab Today column titled “Ask the Fermilab Ethicist.”

The column is part of the laboratory’s new ethics and conduct program, developed to give clear ethical guidelines for employees and users. While many elements of the new program were already in place or governed by internal policies, the program provides a single resource for employees to find these elements.

The new program will also meet a new requirement under the Department of Energy. Click here to view the new FRA Code of Business Ethics and Conduct Program.

Under the new ethics program, every employee will be required to complete Web-based ethics training annually. The training consists of a PowerPoint slide presentation and a short quiz. It will be part of each employee’s Individual Training Needs Assessment. You will receive a reminder when your training is due.

We hope these measures help raise awareness of the new Ethics Program and what is expected of you as an FRA employee. Our goal is to help you when you encounter an issue that is ethically hazy.

Ask the Ethicist

Q. I once invited a DOE employee to lunch as my guest. When I reached for the check, the employee said with a laugh, “I guess this is de minimis, so it is OK.” What did she mean? Was picking up the check OK?
See the response

Q. Sometimes, I write/take photos for the local newspaper. I do this outside of work hours, but are there still times when this activity can be a conflict of interest?
See the response

The Legal Office staff will address questions such as these that are submitted through a Question and Answer web page. Topics for the “Ask the Ethicist” column will come from these questions. If you have ethics questions, please contact the Legal Office at x3252 or e-mail questions to

—By Gary M. Leonard