By Susan Willeke, Ohio Ethics Commission
While the Ethics Law and related statutes cover a wide variety of activities, this article will focus on conflicts of interest, gifts, entertainment, and other things of value.
It should be noted that the Ohio Ethics Commission has explained in several Advisory Opinions that the General Assembly has expressed an evident intent that the State be permitted to receive donations from outside sources.
For example, in one opinion, the Commission held that a resident of the Ohio Veterans Home may make a gift, bequest or donation to the facility provided that the resident makes the transaction voluntarily.
Therefore, a state agency is not prohibited from accepting donations from vendors or regulated parties as long as public officials or employees do not personally benefit from the donation or the donations are not given to pay the expenses of public officials or employees. This same opinion applies to local government entities as well.
Conflict of Interest
The term “conflict of interest” is frequently used and often misunderstood. The basic assumption that underlies the law is that citizens deserve public servants who advance the public interest rather than their personal interests or the interests of closely related parties.
Simply put, a public official or employee has a “conflict of interest” when her ability to be an objective decision-maker is impaired by her own interests, or the interests of family members or business associates.
A conflict of interest is not, in and of itself, illegal. In fact, conflicts are normal, because public servants have families and friends, and may have businesses, professions, investments, property interests, and other connections to their communities. Any of these connections could result in a conflict of interest for the official. The law doesn’t prohibit the conflict; it prohibits the official from acting on the conflict.
The law prohibits a public official or employee from using her public position to secure “anything of value” that could have a substantial and improper influence upon her in the performance of public duties. For example, if a finance officer is required to review work done by a company owned by her father, the finance officer is faced with a conflict of interest.
Because the finance officer’s father has a definite and direct interest in decisions about his company’s work, the Ethics Law would prohibit the finance officer from participating in matters affecting the company. All matters related to the company would have to be handled by someone at the same or a higher level than the finance officer. The finance officer can’t remove the conflict by assigning the project to a subordinate employee. For that reason, it may be necessary for the public agency to decide who, other than the finance officer, will perform these duties.
Gifts, Entertainment, and Other Things of Value
Imagine a beautiful spring day—cloudless blue skies, low humidity, a light breeze—perfect weather. Perfect golf weather, that is. When preparing for a day of fun and relaxation, the last thing that is likely to be on a committed golfer’s mind is the Ethics Law. If the golfer is also a public servant, however, he should devote a few minutes to the topic before teeing up.
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 include, essentially, anything with any monetary value. Gifts, golf outings, theater or sporting event tickets, vacations, and jewelry are all items that the Ethics Commission has specifically identified as things of substantial value.
When a person chooses to enter public service, he must recognize that some gifts and entertainment will be prohibited. If an official is offered a gift, golf outing, entertainment, or other item of substantial value, the official needs to 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 and entertainment to the agency’s public servants.
For example, if a county official’s staff is responsible for approving a contract for the county, the county official and employees would be prohibited from accepting anything of substantial value from the contracted company. If a company employee were to invite the public servants to golf at an exclusive club, the public servant would have two (lawful) options:
Even if the public servant can accept a gift, there may still be requirements under the Ethics Law.
If the official is an elected city or county official, or serves in a state position for which financial disclosure filing is required, he is required to disclose all sources of gifts valued at more than $75. If the public servant’s best friend, who has no ties to the public agency, gives the public servant two tickets to a ballgame, the public servant is required to disclose the friend as a gift source even though the gift is not illegal.
Nominal or very inexpensive gifts such as a coffee mug, tin of popcorn or t-shirt are not considered substantial under the law. Therefore, while minor gifts such as these are not prohibited by the statute, some public servants may still choose to decline them to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
Note that gift cards must also be scrutinized to determine whether or not they are substantial. Substantial gift cards must be refused.
While gift cards of lesser worth may not be considered substantial under the Ethics Law, a public servant should be advised of the appearance of accepting a gift that is essentially cash.
These are just a few of the restrictions within the Ethics Law and related statutes. The examples are general, and may seem obvious, but all are based on cases that have been referred to the Ethics Commission. If you have questions about the law, or would like specific guidance or an advisory opinion, please visit our website or contact the Ohio Ethics Commission at (614) 466-7090.