- David A. Wilson, Executive Director
Media Contact for State Ethics Commission Issues Reminder About Restrictions on Gifts to Public Employees
Gerry Tuoti, Public Information Officer
Boston, MA — With the arrival of the winter holiday season, the State Ethics Commission reminds state, county, and municipal employees that certain gifts may be prohibited by law. A detailed explanation of how the conflict of interest law applies to gifts may be found in State Ethics Commission Advisory 19-1: Gifts and Gratuities.
The conflict of interest law generally prohibits public employees from accepting gifts worth $50 or more that are given because of their position or in connection with an official act. There are some exceptions.
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.
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.
Gifts to teachers
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 per school year, 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.
Gifts to emergency personnel
First responders and public health workers who are employed by state, county, or municipal agencies are subject to the conflict of interest law and are therefore generally prohibited from accepting gifts worth $50 or more given because of their position or an official act. For example, an individual firefighter may not accept a $50 gift card given to show gratitude for responding to an emergency.
Gifts given to a public agency for the agency’s use, rather than gifts given to individual public employees, do not generally violate the conflict of interest law. For example, a gift of food or supplies would not violate the conflict of interest law if the gift is provided to the public agency rather than a specific employee because the gift is for public, rather than private, use. The agency, however, must have the legal authority to accept gifts, and proper procedures must be followed to accept them.
Gifts between coworkers
Public employees are not generally 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.
Public employee discounts
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).
Gifts from lobbyists
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.