Looking for the perfect gift to say thank you to a state government official or employee for support during the past year? Select carefully.
Though gift giving during the holidays or to celebrate the closing of a business deal is common in the private sector, the same is not true in government. Like it or not, gifts given to government officials and employees often imply influence or improper governmental action.
Whether a gift is appropriate depends on your relationship to the state official. What you can give—and what an official can accept—are regulated by the state’s ethics law. You’ll have no problems, however, if you follow these simple rules:
Never give a gift if others might perceive it as an attempt to influence or reward government action.
If you are responding to a request for proposal or qualifications, negotiating for a state contract, being audited or disputing a state action, it is not a good idea to offer a gift to the state official sitting on the other side of the table. Likewise, don’t give a gift to show appreciation for a favorable government decision.
The value of a gift must be under $50. This limit also applies to the value of any gift or gifts given during a calendar year, as well as to gifts given to a state official’s family members or guests.
If you offer tickets to a sporting event or holiday ice show, remember that the total value of all tickets must be under $50. If the tickets are valued at $40, any other gift you may give the same state official during the calendar year must be valued at no more than $10.
A word of caution here: If you have access to tickets that are not available to the general public—because, for example, the event has sold out—the value of those tickets is likely to be higher than their face value.
The $50-limit does not apply if a gift is given to a state official whose job includes regulating your business or contracting with you to provide goods or services to a state agency—don’t give them anything at all. You can give two tickets valued at $50 to an agency receptionist, but you can’t give those same tickets to the state buyer who contracts with you for office furniture.
Meals are considered gifts. These may only be accepted on an occasional basis by state officials, but only those who don’t regulate you or contract with you for goods and services.
If the state official regulates your company or contracts with you, that official must pay the market value for his or her meal.
The prohibition against accepting meals also applies to state officials who can act to influence what is bought by or purchased from your company. For example, a pharmaceutical representative should not pay for a state physician’s meal.
Items that nearly every state official can accept include food and beverages at hosted receptions, and admission to civic, charitable or community events plus any food or beverages that are served there. Also permitted are nominal advertising and promotional items or customary awards of appreciation.
Finding the perfect gift becomes easier—and safer for everyone involved—if you follow these rules. Knowing what to give—and whether you should give it—helps maintain everyone’s credibility.
Author Margaret A. Grimaldi is executive secretary of the Washington Executive Ethics Board.