Public agencies routinely make purchases to carry out their mission and ensure efficient operations. These purchases are “public contracts” under the Ohio Ethics Law.
Essentially, a public contract exists whenever a public agency buys or acquires goods or services. There is no minimum purchase amount required. If a public agency spends money, it is a public contract, whether the amount spent was ten dollars or ten thousand dollars. This is true even if there is no written contract.
A public official or employee cannot use his or her authority to secure a public contract where the official, his or her family member, or his or her business associate has an interest. Whether the public official or employee directly uses a public position to authorize a public contract – or somehow influences the process – in favor of a family member or outside business associate, that is prohibited behavior. In fact, this is a fourth-degree felony under the Ethics Law.
Examples of public contracts regarding property or goods could include office supplies, vehicle purchases, or even construction on public buildings. The purchase or acquisition of services, on the other hand, might include examples such as consulting services, court reporting, or insurance.
When a public employee or official’s family member or business associate wishes to pursue a public contract, the public employee official must completely recuse himself or herself from the process. That does not merely mean the final decision-making process, but also any discussion, reviewing, recommendations or any other action.
The Public Contract provision of the Ohio Ethics Law exists to ensure that public officials or employees do not abuse their public positions to secure or directly profit from public contracts, either for themselves, their family members, or their outside business associates.
This provision of the law prohibits public officials or employees from directly investing or authorizing investments of public funds where the public official or his or her family members or business associates would directly benefit. This violation is a fourth degree under the Ohio Ethics Law. The public is entitled to know that when public money is invested, it is done so with the public’s best interest at heart; not the in the interest of a public servant or those close to them.
A public servant occupies a position of profit in a public contract if the contract was authorized by the public official, or by a body, committee, or board on which he or she sits, unless the contract is competitively bid and awarded to the lowest and best bidder. This restriction exists when the public contract could not have been awarded without the approval of the board, the public official, or the position or public entity of that public official.
If a board for an agency will authorize or approve a contract, a member of the board would be prohibited from receiving any profit from the contract unless the contract is competitively bid and awarded to the lowest and best bidder. This is true even if the board member does not participate in the board’s approval or authorization of the contract.