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Dear Troubled Traveler,
One of the most common advice inquiries that the City Ethics Commission receives involves a City official’s acceptance of travel payments from non-City sources. In some cases, gifts of travel may provide the City with a competitive advantage by allowing City officials the opportunity to better understand issues, products, or services essential for shaping successful public policies, programs, or services. In other cases, a gift of travel may not directly involve the City’s interests but be offered as a personal gesture to a City official. Sometimes a proposed travel payment or reimbursement could serve both purposes. Whatever the case may be, there are various considerations that must be taken into account when determining whether a travel payment is allowable, limited, or prohibited and whether the payment is reportable. Remember, the rules apply whether or not the travel is provided as a result of your City position or your private personal life. While both City and state laws govern the acceptance of travel payments by City officials, the City’s laws are generally more restrictive and are, therefore, a starting point when making an analysis.
It is important to note that because each travel payment scenario involves its own unique set of variables and the laws regarding travel are complicated, there is no generic, one-size-fits-all answer to questions concerning their acceptance. With that in mind, it is always advisable to seek advice from the City Ethics Commission or the Office of the City Attorney prior to accepting a gift of travel. As a general rule of thumb, however, there are several do’s and don’ts that should be followed to provide direction in making an informed conclusion.
Do ask questions. City Officials and donors should determine the following information to assist them, the Ethics Commission, and the Office of the City Attorney in establishing whether a gift of travel is allowable or not:
- Intended Recipient
Determine whether the intended recipient of the travel payment is a City official or a City agency. Depending on which it is, there are different restrictions that will apply.
Determine the relationship between the donor and the recipient. Is the donor a restricted source to the City official? Is the donor a disclosable source? Or a lobbyist or lobbying firm? A bidder in a competitive contracting matter? A transportation company? A campaign committee? Or is it related to the official's private business or employment? Knowing the relationship between the donor and recipient will dictate the types of restrictions that are applicable and whether the travel payment is allowable or not. Also, knowing whether the donor is a government entity or charity and whether the City or official is a member of that entity will help determine whether any exceptions apply.
Determine the purpose of the travel payment. Is the travel payment to be used for official City business or for personal use? Also, will the city official be giving a speech? If so, the location (whether within California, in the U.S., or a foreign country) and duration of the travel are also important. Knowing the purpose of the travel payment and your role and related information will dictate whether certain exceptions apply.
Determine what services are being provided and the value of the travel payment. This figure should include all related costs, including transportation, lodging, meals, registration fees and other related goods or services included in the payment. In some instances, the payment will be prohibited, while other travel payments may be limited to $100 or $390 (in conjunction with other gifts from the same source), just reportable, or not limited and not reportable. Also, acceptance of travel payments may require a City official to recuse on matters impacting that donor, intermediary or agent of the donor.
Determine whether there are any third parties that may have contributed to the gift of travel being provided by the donor. Is the donor acting as an intermediary on behalf of anyone else? A donor may never give a gift of travel as an intermediary for a third party contributing to the payment without disclosing the donor's and the third party's name, address, and business activity and lobbyists and lobbying firms may never act as an intermediary of a gift.
Don’t break the law. City officials and donors should be cautious about following the laws that govern travel payments, keeping the following in mind:
- City Officials
- Must not solicit or accept any advance or reimbursement for travel expenses intended to influence him or her in any official act
- Must not solicit or accept any advance or reimbursement for travel expenses from a restricted source
- Must not solicit or accept any advance or reimbursement for travel expenses from a lobbyist or lobbying firm
- Must not accept free or discounted passes from transportation companies if the official is a public officer
- Must not offer or make any advance or reimbursement for travel expenses intended to influence a City official in any official act
- Must not offer or make any advance or reimbursement for travel expenses if the donor is a restricted source
- Must not act as an intermediary in making a gift of travel expenses without disclosing the donor's and the third party's name, address, and business
- Lobbyists and Lobbying Firms
- Must not act as an agent or intermediary in making or arranging any advance or reimbursement for travel expenses
Keeping these key points in mind can help City officials and donors act in accordance with the law to promote public trust that governmental decisions are based only on the best interests of the City.
Again, we strongly recommend that City officials and donors seek advice from the City Ethics Commission or the Office of the City Attorney when determining whether a gift of travel is permissible. Our analysts are only a phone call away and ready to assist you in making an informed decision.
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