Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 2008-06
July 31, 2008
Issued By: City Attorney’s Office
May a city employee accept an invitation to visit a city vendor’s production facility in another state to review innovations made in products typically purchased by the city?
A city employee has been invited by a company that holds a contract with the city to supply goods and services to visit its production facility. The company has offered to pay for any reasonable business-related expenses for this employee’s visit. The employee has inquired whether he may take this trip and whether he may accept the payment of business travel related expenses.
III. The Ethics Code
A City Employee May Accept Payment from Outside Entities for Reasonable Business-Related Travel Expenses
The Ethics Code allows city personnel to accept payment of reasonable business-related travel by outside parties, even those which may contract or seek business with the city.
Section 2-45 of the Ethics Code restricts employees from accepting personal gifts from city vendors. However, Section 2-45(b)(2) provides that employees may accept:
(2) advancement for or reimbursement of reasonable expenses for travel in connection with official duties authorized in accordance with city policies; such payments must be disclosed in a travel report as required in Section 2-76; payment for or reimbursement of expenses for travel in excess of authorized rates under city policy will be treated as a personal gift to the official or employee for any applicable reporting requirements under Sections 2-73, 2-74 or 2-78;
The business-related travel must be authorized by the department director and the expenses paid by the outside entity must be reported before the travel takes place on a Travel Report form. Ethics Code Section 2-76. "Reasonable" costs are those costs which the city would cover were the city to fund the travel. Costs which the city would not typically cover for travel (upgrades to first class, private jet transportation, upgraded accommodations, entertainment such as golf games or sports events) would not be considerable "reasonable" business-related travel costs, and would be required to be reported as gifts on annual gift report or financial disclosure statement, assuming the employee is subject to those reporting requirements. Ethics Code Sections 2-73, 2-74 and 2-78.
B. Benefits Beyond Reasonable Business Expenses Must be Treated as Personal Gifts
Section 2-45 of the Ethics Code governs the receipt of gifts by city employees. Section 2-45 states in relevant part:
(a) General Rule.
(1) 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.
. . .
(2) A city official or employee shall not solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift or benefit, from:
(A) any individual or entity doing or seeking to do business with the City; or
(B) any registered lobbyist or public relations firm; or
(C) any person or entity 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.
There is no indication from this inquiry that the outside vendor intends to provide the employee with benefits other than paying the costs of his travel and accommodation to visit their production facility. Should the vendor, however, pay for expenditures that would not be covered by the city were the city funding the cost of the trip, those additional expenditures would be treated as personal gifts to the employee and he would be required to comply with any applicable gift reporting requirements under Section 2-73 or 2-78 of the Ethics Code.
The employee may accept payment of expenses for business-related travel but must receive approval from his department director and report the expenditures and the identity outside party paying the expenses on the Travel Report Form. Any gifts received in excess of costs that would have been covered by the city had the city funded the trip would be subject to gift restriction and reporting provisions of the Ethics Code.