- David A. Wilson, Executive Director
Media Contact for Ethics Commission reminds public employees about restrictions on gifts
Gerry Tuoti, Public Information Officer
Boston, MA — With the winter holiday season upon us, the State Ethics Commission reminds state, county, and municipal employees that certain gifts may be prohibited by law. In general, public employees may not accept gifts worth $50 or more that are given because of their public position or because of an official act. There are some exceptions.
The conflict of interest law generally prohibits anyone from giving a public employee a gift worth $50 or more that is given because of the public employee’s position or in connection with an official act. Public employees are likewise prohibited from soliciting or accepting such gifts. Even if a gift is worth less than $50, a public employee would be required to file a disclosure if accepting the gift would create the reasonable impression that he or she would unduly show favor to the giver. Ethics Commission Advisory 04-02: Gifts and Gratuities provides a full overview of how the conflict of interest law relates to gifts.
Most gifts to public employees from family and established friends are not prohibited because they are personal and not linked to any official act or public position. Additionally, public employees may accept unsolicited gifts such as fruit baskets, flowers, or other perishable items if they are accepted on behalf of an office or agency and shared with coworkers or the public. Gifts of alcohol, however, are generally prohibited because they are not perishable and cannot be shared with the public. A full description of exemptions to the gift restrictions is included in 930 CMR 5.08: Conflict of Interest Law Regulations and Exemptions relating to Gifts and Gratuities.
Class gifts to public school teachers are allowed within certain limits. The parents and students of a class may act together to give a gift worth up to $150 to a teacher, provided that the gift is identified as being from the class, and that the names of givers and amounts given are not identified to the teacher. A teacher may not accept any other gift from someone who has contributed to a class gift. Therefore, if an individual gift is given, the teacher must confirm that the giver did not contribute to the class gift. Individual gifts from families that did not contribute to a class gift are allowed if they are worth less than $50. Baked goods, homemade crafts, and other gifts of minimal value are not prohibited. The Commission’s Public School Teacher FAQs on the Conflict of Interest Law contains detailed information about restrictions on teacher gifts.
Restrictions on gifts and gratuities also apply to holiday parties. If a vendor or other private organization offers a public employee a complimentary invitation to a party or event, the public employee is generally prohibited from accepting the invitation if the per-person cost of the event is $50 or more. There is an exemption that allows public employees to accept such invitations if they file a disclosure with a written determination that their attendance serves a legitimate public purpose. Appointed employees must receive that determination from their appointing authority. Regulation 930 CMR 5.08(3)(b) describes the exemption and disclosure requirement in detail.
Public employees are generally not prohibited from giving gifts of substantial value to other public employees in recognition of holidays. However, the conflict of interest law places tighter restrictions on gifts from public employees to their supervisors and superiors. Gifts to supervisors and superiors that are not prohibited include gifts worth no more than $10, food shared in the office, personal hospitality, and gifts given in connection to personal hospitality. Regulation 930 CMR 5.08(8) addresses gifts among public employees.
Although public employees are generally prohibited from accepting gifts or gratuities of substantial value given because of their position, there is an exemption that allows them to accept discounts and waived membership fees in certain circumstances. If a discount is offered to all public employees, for example, it can be accepted. Likewise, if a membership fee for a professional organization is waived or discounted for all similar public employees of a particular profession, then the membership fee waiver may be accepted. Public employee discounts are addressed in Regulation 930 CMR 5.08(7).
The law also generally prohibits gifts of any value from lobbyists to certain public employees. Under the state financial disclosure law, elected state and county officials, as well as appointed state and county employees in major policymaking positions, may not solicit or accept gifts of any kind from lobbyists. Likewise, lobbyists are barred from offering or giving such gifts. Additionally, lobbyists are prohibited from giving gifts to the immediate family members of such state and county officials and employees. There are limited exemptions allowing gifts from lobbyists given solely because of family or established personal friendship contained in Regulation 930 CMR 5.09.
The Commission encourages public employees to contact its Legal Division at 617-371-9500 for free advice if they have any questions regarding how the conflict of interest law may apply to themselves.