New Ethics Commission Advisory on Gifts and Gratuities
The State Ethics Commission recently issued a new advisory on the kinds of gifts and gratuities a public employee may receive under M.G.L. c. 268A. Advisory 19-1: Gifts and Gratuities provides general guidance regarding restrictions that the conflict of interest law places on gifts given to state, county, and municipal employees. This advisory replaces the prior Advisory 04-02. Advisory 19-1 provides an updated format, a list of frequently asked questions, and new guidance on subjects such as crowdsourced fundraisers, public employee discounts, complimentary meals, and gifts from lobbyists.
Generally, public employees may not accept gifts worth $50 or more given (1) for or because of the employee’s official position or (2) for or because of any official action the employee has performed or will perform in the future. There are also rules about the acceptance of gifts under $50. A gift is given because of an employee’s official position if it would not have been given had the employee not held the status, authority, or duties associated with the employee’s public position—for example, a gift card given to each member of a planning board. Public employees also may not accept anything worth $50 or more because of an official act that the public employee has performed or will perform, such as concert tickets worth more than $50 from a business association given to the sponsors of a favorable bill. Public employees are always prohibited from accepting bribes regardless of value.
With the exception of gifts from lobbyists, public employees may accept certain gifts, however. Gifts under $50 may be accepted, but a disclosure may be required. For gifts over $50, public employees may accept gifts unrelated to an official action or position, retirement gifts, certain types of travel and event expenses, unsolicited perishables, class gifts to teachers, or gifts to a public agency for the agency’s use. Certain limitations or requirements do exist, however, so it is always best to read the rules carefully and double-check with counsel if there is a question. Furthermore, statewide elected officials, major policymaking employees who are required to file a Statement of Financial Interest, and members of their immediate family are prohibited from accepting gifts of any value from lobbyists.
Advisory 19-1 also includes an extensive list of frequently asked questions, updated to reflect modern ethics considerations. For example, the advisory directly addresses the question of gifts from a crowdsourcing fundraiser, such as GoFundMe. The State Ethics Commission is of the opinion that this does not run afoul of the state ethics law, but only if the gifts are being given for reasons other than a public employee’s official action or official position, public resources are not used to create the crowdsourcing site, and no targeted solicitation to contribute to the fundraiser is made to the individuals or entities under that employee’s official authority or with whom they have official dealings.