Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 121
Issued By: City Attorney’s Office
May city staff members accept coverage of expenses paid by a city vendor to attend a trade show featuring products of interest and under consideration for purchase by the department?
City staff was
contacted by a city vendor which has sold bicycles and related equipment to
their department in the past. The vendor
has offered to sponsor the attendance of two city employees to attend a trade
The vendor has offered to provide Southwest Airlines passes and two days of lodging at the hotel where the vendor has a group company rate. SAPD now inquires whether it may accept the coverage of these expenses for two of its officers to attend the event.
III. The Ethics Code - Gifts
A. Receipt of Gifts or Benefits
The Ethics Code contains two rules which regulate the acceptance of gifts by city employees. The first restricts gifts given with the intent to influence or reward a city official or employee for official action:
A city official or employee shall not solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift or benefit for himself or herself or his or her business:
(A) that reasonably tends to influence or reward official conduct; or
(B) that the official or employee knows or should know is being offered with the intent to influence or reward official conduct.
Ethics Code, Section 2-45(a)(1).
The second rule restricts gifts from specific sources, regardless of the motivation for the gift:
A city official or employee shall not solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift or benefit, from:
(A) any individual or business entity doing or seeking to do business with the City; or
(B) any registered lobbyist or public relations firm; or
(C) any person seeking action or advocating on zoning or platting matters before a city body,
save and except for
i) items received that are of nominal value; or
ii) meals in an individual expense of $50 or less at any occurrence and no more than a cumulative value of $500 in a single calendar year from a single source.
Ethics Code, Section 2-45(a)(2).
IV. The City Employees May Accept Payment of Reasonable Business-Related Travel Expenditures; Reporting Requirements
Section 2-45 of the city’s Ethics Code prohibits the acceptance of gifts from city vendors with some exceptions. Specifically, Section 2-45(b)(1) provides that a city employee may accept payment of costs for reasonable expenses for travel in connection with official duties of the employees official duties, in this case, the examination and assessment of bicycle-related products. Accordingly, the department may accept payment of reasonable costs associated with attendance for the trade show. Reasonable costs are those costs that the city would pay under its travel policies to send an employee to an event. Attendance at the event and the expenditures covered by the vendor must be reported in the city’s Travel Report. Ethics Code Section 2-76.
Costs exceeding those that the city would pay under its own travel policies, such as upgrades to first class travel, luxury accommodations or gifts of entertainment, would be treated as a personal gift and would be subject to restrictions and possible reporting requirements under the Ethics Code. Expenditures for non-business related activities such as entertainment would also constitute personal gifts.
For non-business related expenditures or business-related expenditures exceeding amounts that could be paid under city policy, the employees may accept the following:
1. items of nominal value ($50 or less);
2. meals in an individual expense of $50 or less at any occurrence, and no more than $500 for a calendar year from any one source; or
3. lodging, transportation, or entertainment accepted as a guest of the donor, up to $500 in a calendar year from any one source.
If such items are accepted, however, the employees must comply with any gift reporting requirements as set out in Section 2-73 (city officials and managers) or 2-78 (specified employees). This requirement is separate and apart from the Travel Report requirement for the business-related expenses.
The department may accept coverage of reasonable business-related expenses by the vendor for the two employees to attend the trade show event. Expenditures for entertainment and other non-business related expenses are subject to the Ethics Code’s restrictions on the receipt of gifts from city vendors; further, the employees must comply with any applicable reporting requirements.