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The ‘perfect storm’ keeping struggling federal workers from accepting help

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Candice Hall works for the Bureau of Prisons in Lexington, Ky. The partial government shutdown has left her without a salary stream and forced to make difficult financial decisions.

Her 8-year-old daughter, Amy, has cerebral palsy and chromosome deficiency. Many of Amy’s day-to-day expenses, such as doctors and day care, don’t accept IOUs or shutdown letters, so Hall must purchase them out of pocket.

As the stalemate, now the longest in U.S. history, enters its second month, Hall has cut back on her daughter’s medical therapy.

“For now, it’s not reasonable,” said Hall, 32. “We don’t know when we’ll receive another paycheck.”

Thousands of federal workers have found themselves in similar situations, and many communities have rallied behind local workers, only to be barred from giving key assistance to those most affected.

University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari and his wife, Ellen, through the Calipari Foundation, wanted to support affected workers in Lexington with a $250,000 donation. The couple encountered a speed bump.

Federal ethics rules, which vary from agency to agency, set restrictions on who may offer help and on how much help — volunteer work, donations or gifts — federal employees may receive.

Robin Goode, president of the Council of Prison Locals in Lexington, a local union represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, explained that workers are often prohibited from taking certain payments, handouts or cash, and that the union was qualified to dispense monetary donations only to its members.

Goode said that more than 70 percent of area prison workers are union members but that “if there was 30 percent more staff to help, we wanted to include them.”

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With the assistance of the union, which represents 13 agencies across the federal government, the Calipari Foundation linked with retail company Kroger and a local nonprofit, Reach, and began tackling each agency’s ethical hurdles.

Together, they worked to comply with the “ethics red tape” and set up a grant that would include staff who weren’t members of the union.

“We needed to make sure that we weren’t causing the employees any issues by taking some payment,” said Geoff Dunn, a spokesman for the Calipari Foundation.

The foundation worked with ethics committees from the Transportation Security Administration; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Bureau of Prisons; Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Marshals Service, learning what workers could receive, and Reach Executive Director Tina Burns drafted the guidelines, according to Dunn. They are still working with ethics officers from the Agriculture Department and Internal Revenue Service.

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Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the government stalemate “presents a minefield of ethics issues.”

“If you haven’t given employees the necessary ethics advice, you may have employees out there who are violating these rules without having the benefit of any guidance,” she said, saying that “the circumstances have created a perfect storm.”

Under federal ethics guidelines, there are specific bans on federal personnel receiving gifts because of their position or from “prohibited sources.” Either scenario could threaten to compromise an employee’s judgment or security clearance.

But, Canter said, there are exceptions.

For instance, it would not be considered a gift if the opportunity or benefit was available to all government employees or to the public at large.

“That’s why a food bank offering food to all government employees, regardless of rank, is probably okay,” Canter explained, adding that such an initiative would not qualify under the exception if it was offered to employees of only one agency.

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Another exception is “the $20 de minimis exception,” where a person can accept only $20 in one sitting or $50 over a year. The exception does not apply to solicited gifts or cash gifts, including crowdsourcing and GoFundMe pages, unprecedented phenomena during a government shutdown.

Canter voiced concern over the lack of any ethics guidance for the use of crowdfunding platforms by government employees, though she presumed it would become more problematic in cases where individuals sought donations based on their federal employment status.

It’s imperative for the White House Counsel’s Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Government Ethics to put out guidance in this area, she said.

Canter said the administration “is not giving employees the advice they need to make sure they’re adhering to the ethics rules. It could potentially expose them to disciplinary action. It’s grossly unfair and negligent.”

Last week, after vetting local government employees through their agencies, the Calipari Foundation began receiving applications from shutdown-affected workers for grant money. To be eligible, “he or she had to work in Fayette County” — in Lexington — “and show lost wages or earned income,” Dunn said.

In less than three days, the foundation approved 20 “special circumstances” grants for $1,000 and 450 gift cards at $500.

Candice Hall applied and received help almost immediately. She said, “The grant has really helped us save for [her daughter’s] medical supplies.”

Calipari launched the program as a limited-funded and limited-time assistance.

“We are hoping that the shutdown ends soon, but we are prepared to help if we need to,” he said in a statement to The Post on Thursday.

All he asks is that once whole again, the federal workers “pay it forward.”

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