GoFundMe campaigns to help furloughed federal employees pay their bills during government shutdown may now be in legal trouble

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washington dc government shutdownBrendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

  • Federal employees have turned to GoFundMe to raise extra money to pay their bills, after going nearly a month without a paycheck thanks to the government shutdown.
  • Nearly 1,500 campaigns have been set up on the fundraising site under the "government shutdown" label.
  • A legal expert says these online fundraisers might be illegal.

Nearly 800,000 federal employees are either not working or working without pay thanks to the government shutdown that has now dragged on for nearly a month. To make ends meet, many of these employees have started GoFundMe campaigns to fundraise extra money for bills and rent.

But that move might now prove to be illegal.

Walter Shaub, the former director of the US Office of Government Ethics, told CNN that federal workers fundraising money online may be breaking a criminal law that prohibits payments in exchange for federal service.

The law, CNN reported, is a part of the US Code that deals with the salaries paid to federal workers under a section called "Bribery Graft and Conflicts of Interest."

According to this law, federal employees aren't allowed to supplement their salaries with other sources of income. Employees who do this may face up to five years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines for each violation, or the amount of compensation received, whatever is greater.

The law, Shaub told CNN, is murky. If people sent money to employees out of sympathy for their stressful situation, that could be OK. But if they did so primarily because they are employed by the government, that could be a legal issue.

"It is entirely possible that the government would decide this conduct violates that law, so I personally would never have done something like this while I was in government," Shaub said. "The potential penalties are quite severe."

Read more: Federal workers affected by the government shutdown are starting GoFundMes to help pay for bills

The GoFundMe campaigns have been started by federal employees across the nation. Some are having trouble paying rent. Others don't have the money necessary to pay for their children's needs. Others are afraid of not being able to put food on the table. A legal dispute would be another problem in a mounting pile of issues brought forth by the shutdown.

The federal government office that could clarify any potential legal ramifications brought forth by their campaigns, however, is closed.

"The Office of Government Ethics could issue an opinion clarifying the government's views on this, but that office is closed during the shutdown," Shaub told CNN. "A skeleton crew is still working on the ethics paperwork for the president's nominees, but federal appropriations laws prohibit any of them other than the director himself from working on other issues. As with all Senate-confirmed appointees, the director is still getting paid and can keep working, but he doesn't have his team of lawyers to help him."

Fundraising online, Shaub said, is "high-risk behavior that, sadly, could potentially land them in serious trouble."

"They're in such a tough position," he said. "My heart is with them, and I'd hate to see them get fired, or worse."

Both CNN and INSIDER reached out to the Office of Government Ethics for a question. Emails weren't returned and calls went straight to voicemail, because the office is shut down.

Screen Shot 2019 01 18 at 11.58.02 AMA screenshot from the Office of Government EthicsScreenshot

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