Government agencies can no longer charge the taxpayers for food, beverages or entertainment for employes during special programs commemorating Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Week or other ethnic or racial awareness ceremonies.
In recent years some federal departments have developed and sponsored on-the-job programs, festivals and music shows as part of Equal Employment Opportunity training sessions. Some of them have included cultural dances, music, food and entertainment along with more standard films, programs and lectures.
By federal definition, only blacks, Hispanics, Oriental Americans, Eskimos, American Indians and Aleuts are considered minority groups for the training sessions. Polish Americans, Jews and other ethnic or racial organizations are not allowed to have similar programs.
It has been standard practice for the government to pick up the tab for educational or training services. Agencies have also paid fees and transportation to speakers in many cases.
Now, however, the General Accounting Office says some of the sessions have become so elaborate that it is difficult to separate education and training from entertainment. GAO, the congressional watchdog agency, says the government cannot pay for entertainment for employes in such cases.
Typical of some of the programs was a Black History Month commemoration last January at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NRC and many other government offices had programs that included films, lectures, speakers and printed material on famous black Americans. As part of its program the NRC hired the Howard University Jazz Ensemble to play for $350.
About the same time, the GAO issued a ruling concerning the payment for "entertainment" at a similar program at Interior Department's Bureau of Mines. This one covered National Hispanic Heritage Week. It featured a musical group, a dozen outside dancers, a guest singer from Puerto Rico and other items GAO said came under the heading of "entertainment."
Because of confusion surrounding education versus entertainment, GAO ruled that both the Bureau of Mines and Nuclear Regulatory Commission could pay fees for their two celebrations. But it said that in the future agencies must limit expenditures to items that are clearly either educational or training. It will be up to the Office of Personnel Management to come up those guidelines. GAO's ruling came in decision No. B-194433.