(AGENPARL) – WASHINGTON (DC), mar 24 novembre 2020
Matter of: U.S. Maritime Administration—Gift Funds for Food
Date: November 24, 2020
An agency may use unrestricted gift funds held in a trust fund for personal expenses,
such as food, if the agency can demonstrate that the expenses are incident to the purposes
of the trust. Here, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s (Academy) unrestricted gift
funds held in a trust fund are available for any activities that further the Academy’s
mission, including a summit of both federal and nonfederal participants to help the Academy
develop a five-year strategic plan. We conclude that the Academy’s unrestricted gift
funds are available to purchase working lunches for attendees, so long as the lunches will
facilitate participation and efficiency.
Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 3529, the Director of Acquisition at the Maritime Administration
(MARAD), United States Department of Transportation (DOT), requested a decision regarding
whether unrestricted gift funds may be used to purchase working lunches for federal
government employees attending a summit sponsored by the Merchant Marine Academy (Academy),
a MARAD component. E‑mail from Director of Acquisition, MARAD, to GAO Official, GAO,
Subject: Advance Decision ‑ Strategic Planning (Mar. 1, 2018)
(Request Letter). We conclude that the Academy may use its unrestricted gift funds to
purchase working lunches for federal employees attending the Academy-sponsored
In accordance with our regular practice, we contacted DOT for additional factual
information and its legal views on this matter. GAO, Procedures and Practices for Legal
Decisions and Opinions, GAO‑06‑1064SP (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 2006), available
Letter from Assistant General Counsel, GAO, to General Counsel, DOT (Dec. 18,
2019). DOT responded with factual information and its legal views. Letter from
General Counsel, DOT, to Assistant General Counsel, GAO (Feb. 14, 2020) (Response
The Merchant Marine Academy (Academy) is an institution of higher education that
provides instruction to prepare individuals for service in the merchant marine of the
United States, conducts research with respect to maritime-related matters, and provides
other appropriate academic support, assistance, and training, as authorized.
46 U.S.C. § 51301(a).
In March of 2018, the Academy planned to host an off-site strategic planning summit to
determine the weaknesses, strengths, and future goals of the institution, and to gain
stakeholder and expert input as the Academy developed its Five-Year Strategic Plan.
MARAD, Office of Chief Counsel, Use of Funds to Pay for Expenses of Non‑Government
Personnel at USMMA Conference (Jan. 26, 2018), at 1 (MARAD Legal Memorandum);
Response Letter, Enclosure 1, at 2. At the summit, the Academy planned to seek input
from attendees to: “(1) learn from the organization’s strengths, (2) disrupt habitual
ways of thinking, (3) explore new directions and opportunities, (4) generate specific
strategies for action, and (5) implement the strategy and make it work.” MARAD Legal
Memorandum, at 2. Additionally, the Academy planned to use unrestricted gift funds to
pay for working lunches for the summit’s participants, including federal government
employees. Id., at 3.
After submitting the decision request, the Academy held the summit on March 12-13, 2018,
in commercial event space located in Great Neck, New York, with 164 participants in
Response Letter, Enclosure 1, at 1. Academy officials used $13,640 in unrestricted
gift funds to provide lunch to all attendees on both days of the summit because they
determined the schedule did not provide sufficient time to leave the venue and were
concerned that uncompensated participants might not return for the afternoon sessions if an
off‑site lunch break was scheduled. Id., at 2‑3.
At issue here is whether the Academy may use unrestricted gift funds to purchase food
for federal government employees who attend a strategic planning summit
hosted by the Academy.
Gifts or donations are gratuitous conveyances or transfers of ownership in property
without any consideration.
B‑274855, Jan. 23, 1997. Where Congress makes donated or gifted funds available to an
agency pursuant to specific statutory authority, such funds are considered
appropriated. Id. In general, agencies may not use appropriated funds to
furnish meals or refreshments to employees within their official duty stations.
B‑247563, Dec. 11, 1996. This is because such expenses are considered personal in
nature and government employees are expected to bear them from their own salaries. 72
Comp. Gen. 178 (1993).
However, we have explained that where federal officers are authorized to use private
donations that are held in a trust fund to carry out certain activities, we have been
willing to rely on the discretion of agency officials to determine whether such
expenditures are in furtherance of official purposes and funds may be used for a government
employee’s personal expenses. B-195492 L/M, Mar. 18, 1980. This does not mean
that federal officers may always use moneys held in trust for personal expenses.
Id. Rather, agency officials must justify how the proposed expenditures are
incident to the authorized purposes of the trust fund. Id.
Here, the Maritime Administrator is authorized to accept and use conditional or
unconditional gifts of money or property for the benefit of the Academy. 46 U.S.C.
§ 51315(a). Unconditional gifts of money must be deposited into the Academy Gift
Fund—a trust fund, and such amounts, unless specified by the terms of the gift, may be used
by the Administrator “for appropriated or non-appropriated purposes at the Academy.”
46 U.S.C. § 51315(b); MARAD Legal Memorandum, at 3.
The Academy asserts that unrestricted gift funds held in the Academy Gift Fund may be
used to purchase working lunches for federal government employees participating in the
summit based on “GAO opinions holding that agencies may use gift funds to purchase food for
an agency-sponsored event when doing so carries out an authorized agency function.”
Response Letter, at 2, citing 46 Comp. Gen. 379 (1966). Additionally, the
Academy reasons the unrestricted gift funds are available to purchase working lunches
because providing lunch will allow the summit to be conducted in an efficient manner and
ensure all attendees’ continued participation in the summit. Response Letter, at 2. We agree
with the Academy’s rationale.
The Maritime Administrator is authorized to use money deposited in the Academy Gift Fund
“for appropriated or non-appropriated purposes at the Academy,” unless otherwise specified
by the terms of the gift. 46 U.S.C. § 51315(b). As such, any
gift funds deposited in the Fund, that are donated without terms and conditions, are
available to carry out any activities that further the statutory mission of the Academy
regardless of whether the Academy’s regular appropriated funds are available for such
Here, the Academy notes that the gift funds that will be used by the Academy for summit
expenses, including the provision of lunch, were donated without any terms or
conditions. Response Letter, Enclosure 1, at 2. As a result, the gift funds
that the Academy plans to use to provide lunch are broadly available for any activities
that further the Academy’s mission.
The statutory mission of the Academy is to prepare individuals for service in the
merchant marine of the United States, to conduct research with respect to maritime‑related
matters, and to provide other appropriate academic support, assistance, and training.
46 U.S.C. § 51301(a). The Academy states that the goal of the summit
is to solicit stakeholder and expert input in order to allow the Academy to develop its
Five-Year Strategic Plan. Response Letter, Enclosure 1, at 2. The development
of the Strategic Plan will require the Academy to review its weaknesses, strengths, and
future goals, which the Academy believes will enable leadership to provide appropriate
academic support to the institution. Response Letter, at 2. The Academy also
explains that “[p]roviding lunches to the attendees [is] necessary to conduct the
conference in an efficient manner and ensure continued participation of all
attendees.” Response Letter, Enclosure, at 3. The provision of lunch to summit
attendees will ensure continued participation in a summit that will allow the Academy to
develop its Strategic Plan, thereby allowing Academy leadership to provide appropriate
academic support to the institution. Therefore, we agree with the Academy that its
gift funds are available to purchase working lunches for federal government employees
attending the summit.
The Academy may use its unrestricted gift funds to purchase working lunches for federal
government employees attending a summit sponsored by the Academy because such funds are
available for any activities that further the Academy’s mission and the provision of food
for these employees will allow the Academy to develop its Five‑Year Strategic Plan.
The determination of whether an agency may use unrestricted gift funds for personal
expenses, such as food, because those expenses are in furtherance of official purposes must
be made on a case by case basis.
Thomas H. Armstrong