Giving or Receiving Gifts May Get You Into Trouble

Gifts are given all the time for all sorts of reasons, like birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes for no reason at all, merely a gesture of kindness. Sometimes it's better not to give or to receive a gift, though.

Governor Paterson

Late in August 2010, the results of an investigation of New York Governor David Paterson were announced. The investigation concerned Paterson's receipt of five tickets to the first game of the 2009 World Series. He took two aides, his son, and his friend's son to the game.

The problem is, he didn't pay for the tickets at the time - at least the four he should have paid for, that is, all of the tickets but the he used. The New York State Commission on Public Integrity (CPI) began the investigation after it found that Paterson paid for the four tickets after he was pushed for an answer by the local media.

Ultimately, it was decided that Paterson wasn't completely truthful when he told the CPI, under oath, that he intended all along to pay for the four tickets.

Ethics, Gift and Bribery Laws

Gov. Paterson ran into trouble with the state's ethics laws on public officials' accepting gifts. New York makes it illegal for public officials to ask for or accept gifts with more than "nominal value" when it appears the gift is intended to influence him, or reasonably could be expected to influence him, in the performance of his official duties. The World Series tickets had a face cost of $ 425 apiece - more than "nominal" value.

It's been reported that the CPI has recommended that Paterson pay a $90,000 fine for taking the tickets. As of early September 2010, there's no word on whether the state's attorney general will charge him with the crime of perjury for not being truthful with CPI investigators.

Know the Rules

That fruit basket a contractor sends to a county official as a "thank you" after his company lands a big public works contract may get the contractor and the official in trouble. The laws vary from state to state, but here some general guidelines:

  • If the gift is any way connected to a public official's decision to act or not to act, don't offer or accept the gift
  • Current and former government officials are typically covered by gift and bribery laws
  • Generally, a "gift" doesn't include things like food, holiday and birthday cards, and items with low "intrinsic value," like a "certificate of appreciation." Full-blown meals at high-end restaurants, however, may not qualify for the food exception, though
  • Gift are allowed if the public official and gift-giver are related (by blood or marriage) or they have a personal friendship
  • There's usually a dollar limit on permissible gifts. For instance, there's the $20/$50 rule under the federal gift law. Federal officers and workers can accept a gift worth $20 or less at any one time, but they can't accept more than $50 per year from any single gift-giver

Companies often have gift policies as well and you should check with your human resources' department before accepting any gifts.

Other Laws

Most states have laws making it illegal for public officials to ask for or accept gifts under certain circumstances. Also, most states make it illegal for someone to give or offer a gift to a public official. For the most part, if the gift is intended to get the official to do something, or not do something, in favor of the gift -giver, the gift is illegal. Both sides face possible civil and criminal penalties.

The federal gratuity law is very similar to many state laws. It makes it illegal to offer or give a federal official anything of value for or because of any official act he does, or doesn't do.

Most states also have bribery statutes, much like the federal bribery law. Generally, they're very similar to the gift laws and make it illegal for a public official to ask for or take, or for someone to offer or give, anything of value to influence the official's decision-making. The real differences between an illegal gift and a bribe are it takes more proof or evidence to prove a bribe and bribery usually carries more severe criminal penalties.

The purpose of these laws is to keep our governments free from corruption. Like the media in New York, we should all take do what we can to make sure the laws work the way they're supposed to work to keep our elected officials honest.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is it an illegal gift to send the employees of an entire city department a gift for the holidays, like restaurant gift certificates or a catered in-office meal?
  • Can a government official accept a gift and donate it to charity without having to worry about gift or ethics laws?
  • Are gifts to public officials tax deductible?
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