making local government more ethical

Gifts to Officials' Family Members

Many major cities do not prohibit gifts from those seeking special benefits from the city government (restricted sources) to family members of city officials. Such a prohibition may seem a stretch, at least theoretically. How can a government interfere in the gifts given to an official's family members? Consider this situation, from 2011, which recently became public.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the CEO of a dietary supplement company seeking to get acceptance of its new supplement in Virginia paid $15,000 in catering costs for the wedding reception of the daughter of Virginia's governor. Three days before the wedding, the governor's wife spoke at a seminar about how the new supplement would be a way to lower health-care costs in Virginia. Three months later, the supplement's launch party was held at the gubernatorial mansion.

The governor says that he didn't even have to disclose the $15,000 gift because it didn't go to him. And yet not a single person in Virginia could possibly believe that the gift was not made to him, and by someone who was seeking (and getting) special benefits for his business. In fact, we all know that the way to get to an official's heart, if not directly benefit her household, is to make a gift to a child or needy sibling or parent.

And yet in a search through local government ethics codes, I found some important jurisdictions with good ethics programs, where gifts to members of an official's immediate family are allowed. Here's what I found:
Atlanta - allowed
Chicago - prohibited
Dallas - allowed
Denver - prohibited
Jacksonville - allowed, unless considered an indirect gift to the official
King County, WA - allowed, unless considered an indirect gift to the official
Los Angeles - allowed
Miami - prohibited
Minneapolis - allowed
New York City - allowed
Palm Beach County - allowed, unless considered an indirect gift to the official
Rhode Island - prohibited
San Diego - allowed
Seattle - allowed
A prohibition on gifts made to an official "indirectly" can be applied to gifts to family members, but it all depends on the ethics commission's interpretation. Such a prohibition may or may not be applied in the wedding gift situation. The gift was effectively a wedding gift to the daughter, and the CEO did have a personal relationship with the family. He could argue that there was no intention to make an indirect gift to the governor, and that the governor did not benefit.

That is why the City Ethics Model Code prohibits both indirect gifts and gifts to family members. Here is the language:
An official or employee, his or her spouse or domestic partner, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household, may not solicit nor accept anything of value, directly or indirectly ...
The International Municipal Lawyers Association model code also prohibits gifts to family members of officials.

The cities and states that allow gifts to immediate family members from restricted sources, even if they prohibit indirect gifts, should publicly discuss this wedding case. If people feel that such a gift should be allowed, then they can leave their ethics code as is. If not, the law should be changed. If officials prefer to keep just the term "indirect," it should be made clear that this term covers gifts to family members.

San Antonio has valuable language in its gift provision that ties the official to the acceptance by others of gifts: “A city official or employee shall take reasonable steps to persuade: (1) a parent, spouse, child, or other relative within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity, or (2) an outside business associate not to solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift or benefit...” (§2-45(d)). This is a useful addition to prohibiting these gifts.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics