Gifts and other things of value.
The Ethics Code prohibits a Covered Individual from soliciting or receiving items of monetary value where it would appear to a reasonable person that the item was given with intent to gain influence or special consideration. The Code also prohibits Covered Individuals from using their official positions for private benefit.
In 2009, amendments replaced the word “gift” with "any retainer, gift, loan, entertainment, favor, or other thing of monetary value" to eliminate any doubt that discounts, meals, invitations, or other things of value that don’t come in neatly wrapped packages are also barred under the Ethics Code.
To help sort gifts from token appreciations, the Commission adopted an Interpretive Rule regarding gifts, called the "Gift Rule." The Gift Rule identifies some items that are acceptable and sets new limits. Individuals who are offered gifts outside of the "safe harbors" described in the Rule should either decline the item or call the Commission office for guidance.
Covered Individuals should be tuned into the myriad ways that people who want to influence City actions might try to win your favor. Contact the SEEC for advice about how to respond. These FAQs cover just some examples of how items of value are offered to employees.
- I am a City employee. Can I accept promotional or logo items, such as hats or coffee mugs, from City contractors and vendors?
Answer: This is one of the safe harbors, so you do not need to contact the SEEC every time a token advertising item is offered to you. If you or your department purchase from, license, inspect, or monitor the giver, you may accept token advertising items like these if they are worth less than $25, with a total of less than $50 from one source in a year.
The acceptance of logo items worth more than $25, or other items for personal use, can send the wrong message. Even acceptance of low-value advertising items may raise other issues you need to be aware of.
- May we keep flowers, chocolates, or similar gifts or treats given to our office by a customer or vendor?
Answer: Generally, yes, if they are valued at $25 or less and shared with your co-workers or the public. This is the other "safe harbor" when you get gifts from your customer, vendors, or contractors. Large, elaborate baskets or bouquets beyond the $25 limit should be returned to the donor, with the explanation that the Ethic's Code prohibits your accepting it.
Do not simply donate the item to a charity without telling the donor not to give them in the future. It's up to you to let the donor know you are prohibited from accepting gifts. Explain that our customers expect employees to provide responsive public service without inappropriate influence.
See the next question about the aggregate limit of $50 total value for perishable items from a single source in a calendar year.
- Is there any limit to the number of bouquets we can accept from the customer or vendor?
Answer: Yes. The "Gift Rule" sets an annual maximum of $50 total value of gifts received from one source over a calendar year, including gifts that are properly shared, when they are given by someone with whom you have regulatory, contractual, or purchasing business. You are responsible for keeping track of gifts, and returning to the sender any gifts--including perishable gifts--that exceed this total.
- Can my crew accept coffee offered to them by neighbors of the project we're working on?
Answer: Yes. Generally, you may accept minor refreshments that would not appear to be given with intent to influence your actions as a City employee.
- Can my workgroup accept lunch from a contractor that we are meeting with to discuss our project?
Answer: Employees may accept basic refreshments, including box lunches, when attending meetings in a contractor or vendor's office, and the meeting carries over the lunch hour. If your meeting ends before or begins after the lunch hour, and you choose to eat lunch, you should pay for your part of the meal. Similarly, if you are meeting with a consultant in a restaurant, you should pay your own bill every time.
- A contractor is holding an open house to celebrate their new headquarters. Can our team attend?
Answer: Be very thoughtful about the possible issues before you accept an invitation like this. If you are invited to an event by an entity you or your department has contractual or regulatory business with, you should decline the invitation or contact the SEEC for advice based on the specific circumstances.
Your team may be able attend if this is truly an open house or hosted reception, or a barbecue open to all passers-by, and not a party directed toward your work group or the City, or to your crew because of your role with the City. If delicate business is looming, such as a Request for Proposals or a project inspection, or if your department expects to continue to have regulatory or contractual responsibilities with the host, you should decline the invitation or pay the fair cost of attending.
The Gift Rule allows attendance at "hosted receptions" when you are not in a contractual, purchasing, or regulatory role with the host. A "hosted reception" is defined as a social function that is attended by a diverse group of no fewer than 20 people, has attendees that are not limited to City officers or employees and the hosts, and that does not involve a sit-down meal. If this is an invitation to a hosted reception, you may be able to attend. But, again, if you or your department has official dealings with the host, you or your department should pay a fair value for your participation.
- A local store has offered me a discount because I'm a City employee. Is it okay for me to accept the discount?
Answer: No, it is not okay for you to accept a discount--which is an item of value--that is offered to you because you are a City employee. This is true even if it is appreciation for your good work as a public servant.
Under no circumstances should you show your City identification in order to get a discount or other premium. And even if you are not asked to show your ID, because you are known to the vendor, you still may not accept a special discount offered because of your City job. That would be improper use of your position for your own private gain.
Similarly, employees cannot accept a discounted bid for labor from a contractor that the employee knows from work. If this is truly a promotional discount that is being offered to the general public, you may accept the reduced rate. But if it is offered to you because of your City job, you must decline the discount and pay the going rate.
Employees also may not receive the City's negotiated rate for their private purchases. Pay attention to how you are being charged. It is not okay to receive the City's discount for anything but the City's purchases.
The only discounts that City employees may accept because of their employment are those that are offered to all employees via the City's internal bulletin board, or are part of the City's negotiated purchase agreements. Other special rates offered to City employees or officials for private purchases are often improper gifts. Contact us for advice about your own situation.
- A vendor has sent me a plaque and a pen with their logo in appreciation of years of purchases. Can I keep them?
Answer: Yes, in general, acceptance of unsolicited tokens or awards of appreciation in the form of a plaque, trophy, desk item, wall memento, or similar items is not a violation of the Code.
Other than these, keep in mind that you cannot receive gifts or premiums from vendors for the City orders you place.
- A supplier has invited me to attend an educational program at their expense. The information would benefit the City, but we have no budget for the trip. Can I accept the plane ticket and lodging so that I can attend?
Answer: No, but your department may. It is not appropriate for an employee to receive lodging or travel tickets or reimbursement from someone who does--or would like to do--business with the employee's department. But the department may accept such payments under certain circumstances.
If attendance at the event serves a City purpose, the department may pay for the travel and lodging according to applicable travel policies, and be reimbursed by the vendor. The vendor cannot specify that you are the one to attend. It is management's decision who is the appropriate attendee.
If your conference attendance would be underwritten by a person or entity that is not a City contractor or vendor, but a foundation or some other government or non-profit agency, the best course still is to have the matter handled as a reimbursement to the department. Contact the SEEC for further advice.
- A friend of mine is a City contractor. My family has gone to the contractor's cabin every summer for years. Can we continue to go?
Answer: Yes, it is okay for you continue to accept an invitation which has been historically given to you by your friend. However, if you are assigned to work on your friend's dealings with the City, there are other implications. In that case, before you participate on any level in your friend's City matters, you will need to disclose this relationship to your Department Head and the SEEC Executive Director. See the FAQ on "Appearances" and contact the SEEC for advice. Here is the disclosure form to use.
If a contractor or vendor or someone you regulate invites you to a trip, of course you cannot accept the invitation.
On the City Clerk's web site,
Ethics Code section on prohibited conduct.
See SMC 4.16.070(3)(a), regarding gifts, and
SMC 4.16.070(2)(a), prohibiting use of position for private gain.
Read the Gift Rule.
For assistance, contact the SEEC.
Last updated April 14, 2011.