U.S. workers forbidden to write, speak for pay, even on non-work subjects

December 04, 1990|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The federal ethics agency told government workers yesterday that they could not accept payment for writing articles or giving speeches, even if the subject is unrelated to their work.

Under the new policy, for example, a State Department official or Social Security worker would be prohibited from taking money for a magazine article on coin collecting or for a lecture on orchids.

Government employee unions say thousands of federal workers engage in such activities in their off-duty time and will be affected by the ban.

"It's fairly common" for government employees to be paid for articles and speeches unrelated to their work, said Stephen D. Potts, head of the Federal Office of Government Ethics, which issued the directive.

Federal workers and First Amendment lawyers say the new restrictions, mandated by Congress, violate federal employees' rights of free speech. The maximum penalty for a violation is $10,000 or the amount of payment received for an article or speech, whichever is greater.

In his directive, Mr. Potts said, "Executive branch employees have long been prohibited from receiving any compensation, including honoraria, for speaking and writing on subject matter that focuses specifically on the employing agency's responsibilities, policies and programs; when the employee may be perceived as conveying agency policies, or when the activity interferes with his or her official duties."

Starting Jan. 1, he said, "receipt of compensation will be prohibited for any appearance, speech or article, regardless of the subject matter or circumstances." Mr. Potts said the ban was being imposed as a result of the Ethics Reform Act, signed by President Bush Nov. 30, 1989.

Among those complaining about the prohibition was Jan Adams Grant, an employee of the Internal Revenue Service who receives $22,200 a year in federal wages and $3,000 for free-lance articles on camping and the environment.

The ban "steps all over my rights," Mrs. Grant said in an interview.

She noted that members of the House of Representatives will get a 29.5 percent raise -- to $125,100 a year -- when a new ban on speaking fees for lawmakers takes effect in January. But she said she would get a raise of only 3.1 percent.

The National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit challenging the ban last week, and the American Civil Liberties Union said it might do so, too.

The new policy contains some exceptions. A federal employee may, for example, accept payment for writing books of any kind. Mr. Potts said it was likely that federal employees would also be allowed to take money for writing "works of fiction, poetry, lyrics and scripts."

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