Gifts and Ohio Ethics Law
The winter months are a time of celebration for many. They are also a time when many exchange gifts. When a person chooses to enter public service, however, he or she must recognize that some gifts and entertainment will be prohibited. To know whether or not a gift may be accepted, both the value and the source of the item must be determined.
The Ethics Law prohibits a public official or public employee from soliciting or accepting anything of value that could have a substantial and improper influence on the performance of his or her public duties. Some items that the Ohio Ethics Commission has identified as having “substantial” value include, tickets to theater or sporting event, vacations, expensive meals and golf outings.
Nominal or very inexpensive gifts such as a coffee mug, tin of popcorn, or t-shirt are not considered substantial. These types of minor gifts are not prohibited under the Ethics Law, though some public officials or employees may still choose to decline them to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Some public offices return gifts with a request that the item be donated to a charity to ensure that the integrity of the public office or its personnel is never called into question.
If, however, a public official or employee is offered a substantial gift, such as sports tickets or jewelry, he or she then must identify the giver or source to determine whether it is acceptable. Individuals and other parties that are doing or seeking to do business with, interested in matters before, or regulated by a public agency are improper sources of substantial gifts to the agency’s public employees.
When the holiday season is approaching, the Ohio Ethics Commission specifically receives many questions regarding gifts from vendors. In a 2013 Gift Bulletin, the Commission offered guidance for state and local government agencies. In the bulletin, the Commission reminded public officials and employees that accepting a gift or entertainment of substantial value from an improper source is prohibited. However, the Commission also offered the following guidance:
- The Ethics Law does not prohibit public officials or employees from socializing with anyone;
- If a public official or employee is going to a restaurant with an agency vendor, and the cost of the meal will be substantial, the public servant should pay his or her own bill;
- If a public official or employee is invited to attend an open house hosted by an agency vendor, in most cases, it would be acceptable to attend because the per-person value of an open house is unlikely to be substantial; and
- If a public official or employee is invited to attend an expensive event hosted by a vendor, or an event that includes expensive tickets (such as a sporting event, concert, theater performance), the public servant may either decline the invitation or pay the per-person cost to attend the event. See the Gift Bulletin for more information on reimbursement requirements.
If you have additional questions regarding gifts during the holiday season or throughout the year, visit our web site or contact us at 614-466-7090.