Theft of Government Property
Is it worth losing my job, paying heavy fines and/or going to jail? These
are all questions a federal employee should consider before they take
government property, regardless of how insignificant the item may seem.
U.S. Code Title 18 §641 states it is unlawful for any person to:
"embezzle, steal, purloin, or knowingly convert to their use or the
use of another, or without authority, sell, convey or dispose of any record,
voucher, money, or thing of value of the United States or of any department
or agency thereof..."
A Title 18 conviction is punishable by fines, up to 10 years in prison,
or both depending on the value of the items taken. In addition, to criminal
prosecution under Title 18, a federal employee can face an adverse personnel
action including demotion, suspension, or termination.
In the case of an adverse personnel action, the wording of the charge is
significant if a federal employee intends to oppose the charge to mitigate
the penalty. Often an Agency will use broad terms in its charges such
as "unauthorized removal of government property" or "unauthorized
possession of government property." By articulating the charge in
broad terms, the Agency only needs to prove the facts or circumstances
set forth in the notice of proposed action. If, however, a federal employee
is charged specifically with theft, larceny or a violation of Title 18
§641 the Agency must also prove intent to deprive the owner permanently
of use or possession of their property. Since a conviction of theft of
government property essentially labels a federal employee as a criminal,
the Merit System Protection Board has held that an Agency must afford
a federal employee the same due process they would receive in a criminal
court. Meaning, for theft charges, the Agency must prove the employee's
actions were taken with criminal intent.
Theft of government property speaks directly to the efficiency of service,
the employee/employer relationship, and depending on the notoriety of
the crime, can reflect poorly on the reputation of the Agency as a whole.
This does not, however, give the Agency the right to impose a penalty
for the sole purpose of making an example of an employee. The Agency must
impose a penalty that is within the tolerable limits of reasonableness.
To determine the reasonableness of a penalty issued in relation to the
theft of government property the deciding official and/or the Merit System
Protection Board, also known as the MSPB, may consider the nature and
seriousness of the offense, past work, disciplinary record, the potential
for rehabilitation, and the effect of the offense upon a supervisor's
trust and confidence in the employee. Another mitigating factor to consider
is whether other federal employees charged with theft of government property
received similar penalties. While these factors seem to be straight forward,
be aware that each factor is subject to interpretation and may not apply
in every case.
Given the serious implications of allegations of government property theft,
it is often best to consult an experienced federal employment attorney
to assist you with your response.