City of San Antonio, Texas
Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 86
March 15, 2004
Issued By: City Attorney’s Office
May a city employee accept payment of travel expenses and admission to attend
an event related to the employee’s official duties paid for by a private sector business?
II. Factual Background
A city employee has been invited to attend a competition in another state. This competition involves testing of skills directly related to this employee’s work for the city. It is hosted by a non-profit professional organization, which also serves as a resource for individuals involved in the employee’s line of work.
A private sector business has offered to pay for the employee’s expenses to attend the competition, including the entrance fee, food and lodging. Further, the business has offered to pay for a first-class ticket for the employee to fly to the event.
The employee asks whether he may accept the offer from this business. This business has a contract with the city and from time to time seeks action before city boards and commissions.
III. The Ethics Code Provisions
Section 2-45(a) of the City Code (Ethics Code) regarding the acceptance of gifts states:
(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, save and except for items received that are of nominal value and meals in an individual expense of $50 or less at any occurrence, or meals with no more than a cumulative value of $500 in a single calendar year, from a single source, 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 or advocating on zoning or platting matters before a city body.
The code provides some exceptions to these restrictions. Under Section 2-45(b)(6) and (b)(10), an employee may accept admission to an event in which he is participating in connection with his official duties. Section 2-45(b)(12) also provides that the employee may accept:
admission to a training or education program, including meals and refreshment furnished
to all attendees, if such training is related to the official or employee’s duties and the training is in the interest of the city.
Finally, Section 2-45(b)(13), allows a city employee to accept “lodging, transportation, or entertainment that the official or employee accepts as a guest up to $500 from a single source in a calendar year.” This exception is contingent upon the recipient and the donor complying with any applicable reporting laws or regulations.
Section 2-45(a) of the Ethics Code prohibits city officials and employees from accepting gifts from individuals or entities doing business with the city. However, under Section 2-45(b)(12), the employee may accept admission and reasonable expenses associated with an event or training related to the employee’s duties, where the training is in the interest of the city. Reasonable expenses are those expenses that the employee’s department would have paid under the applicable administrative directives or other policy had the department paid for the employee to attend the event.
The event to which the employee was invited is directly related to the employee’s duties and qualifies as training that is in the interest of the city. Accordingly, under Section 2-45(b)(12), the employee may accept the business’s offer to pay for the entrance fee, and reasonable costs of lodging, meals and transportation.
The business has offered to fly the employee first-class. City policy directs that departments use the lowest cost available airfare for employee travel. Accordingly, the employee could accept the payment of the lowest cost airfare. First-class accommodation over that amount, however, would constitute a personal gift to the employee.
Under Section 2-45(b)(13), the employee may accept a gift of lodging, transportation or entertainment of up to $500 in a calendar year from a single source, but the employee must go as a guest of the donor. If a gift is accepted under this provision, the employee must also comply with any applicable reporting requirements under Section 2-73 (Financial Disclosure Report) or Section 2-78 (Specified Employee Gift Report).