Gifts and the Ohio Ethics Law
The Ethics Law prohibits a public official or employee from soliciting, accepting, or using a public position to secure things of value that could have a substantial and improper influence on the employee. Things of value can include many things, like money, gifts, real estate, employment, and compensation.
The Ethics Law recognizes that when someone is giving a public official something of significant value, both the source and the value must be considered to determine whether it could have a substantial and improper influence on a public official’s job duties.
The Ethics Law prohibits a public official from soliciting or accepting ‘anything of value,’ if the thing of value could have a substantial and improper influence on him in the performance of public duties.
‘Anything of value’ is defined in state law to essentially include anything with any monetary value. So, before a public servant accepts a gift or thing of value, both the source and the value must be considered.
The Ethics Law prohibits public officials and employees from accepting substantial things of value from improper sources. The word ‘substantial’ is not defined by a specific dollar amount, so the Ethics Commission has provided guidance to help public servants understand and comply with the law.
In Advisory Opinion 2001-03, the Commission offered examples of substantial things of value which cannot be accepted, but also gave examples of items that are considered nominal under the law.
Items that are considered nominal – and therefore not prohibited - could include a cup of coffee, a box of popcorn, an inexpensive picture frame, or a plate of cookies.
Accepting gifts of this type would not be prohibited under the law. Be aware, though, that the Commission has cautioned that nominal items or expenses could have a substantial cumulative value if extended over time.
So, while a public servant would not be prohibited from accepting the occasional modest gift from a vendor or regulated party, routine acceptance of such gifts from the same source will add up over time.
Examples of substantial gifts include outside consulting jobs or private employment, payment of debts, loans, travel to exotic locations, lavish meals, entertainment activities, such as golf outings or season tickets for a professional sports team, or significant discounts on major consumer items.
Public officials and employees must be aware that they may not accept these kinds of substantial gifts from improper sources.
In addition to determining the value of a gift, a public servant must also consider the source – or the giver – of the thing of value. The Ethics Law prohibits public officials or employees from accepting substantial things of value from improper sources.
The Commission defined an “improper source” as: any person, company, organization, or other entity that has any of these relationships with the public agency an official or employee serves:
- Doing or seeking to do business with the agency;
- Regulated by the agency; or
- Interested in matters before the agency.
Any person or company in one of these categories is considered an ‘improper’ source and therefore may not gift a public servant with substantial gifts.
A public official or employee also cannot accept compensation for the performance of his or her public job duties from any source other than his or her public employer.
Before we conclude this course, let’s review one additional related statute. It’s often referred to as “Supplemental Compensation” and it ensures that public employees are not subject to divided loyalties when performing their public jobs.
Essentially, the law prohibits a public official or employee from accepting compensation from anyone other than the public employer they serve. It makes no difference whether it’s given to compensate the official for some specific action or decision, or just for the general performance of job duties.
To summarize this provision of law, public servants should assume that nobody may augment their public salaries, either with money, gifts, the payment of travel expenses or any other form of supplemental compensation.