Holiday Gifts to City Officials

During the holiday season, gift giving can be a simple and well-intentioned gesture of thanks for a friendship or in appreciation of a job well done. At the same time, when public officials receive gifts from sources whose activities fall under the scope of the official’s duties, receiving a gift is something that may not be so simple. To help ensure that all City decision making is, and is perceived to be, fair and impartial, limits and disclosure requirements can apply based on the value of a gift as well as its source. Limiting the amount of gifts that can be given to an official—and from whom an official can receive them—helps ensure that governmental decisions are based only on merits, and not influenced by things of value that the decision maker may have received.

Because the law covers both gift givers and gift recipients, staying in compliance with the law requires a number of steps, it starts with understanding the relationship of an official to the gift giver. Below are some general guidelines that can be used to identify whether a gift is acceptable, restricted, or prohibited. 

Who is the Source of the Gift?

As with all questions relating to gifts, the first step is to understand a City official’s relationship to the gift giver. To determine whether a gift is acceptable under the law, first determine whether the giver is a lobbyist or lobbying firm, a restricted source to the official, or a disclosable source to the official.

Gifts from Lobbyists and Lobbying Firms

If the gift giver is a lobbyist or lobbying firm who is authorized to lobby the City official’s agency, the lobbyist may not give, and the official may not accept the gift. A list of lobbyists and lobbying firms registered with the City Ethics Commission (CEC) is accessible and searchable on the CEC’s website at http://ethics.lacity.org/lobby/lobby.cfm.

Gifts from "Restricted" Sources

If the giver is not a lobbyist or lobbying firm, the next question is whether the gift giver is a "restricted source" to the official. In other words, is the source doing or seeking to do business with the official’s agency? Is it a registered “lobbyist employer”? Has the source attempted to influence the City official on any matter, even if the source is not a registered lobbying entity? Does the source have any matter involving a license, permit or other entitlement for use pending before the City official, or was one pending before the official in the last nine months? If so, that source may be a “restricted source” under City law. Gifts from anyone who is a restricted source to a City official are limited to no more than $100 per source per calendar year.

To see how City law defines a restricted source for various categories of officials, see LAMC sec. 49.5.2. at http://ethics.lacity.org/PDF/law_geo.pdf.

Gifts from "Disclosable" Sources

Finally, if the giver is neither a lobbying entity nor a restricted source to the City officials, the last question is whether the source is a "disclosable source” to the official. A disclosable source is any person or entity listed in a City official’s assigned disclosure category in his or her department’s Conflict of Interest Code. If the giver falls under the official’s disclosure category, state law limits the official to accepting no more than $390 per calendar year from that source until December 31, 2008. Beginning January 1, 2009, gifts from any disclosable source is limited to $420 per source per calendar year.

In summary, City and state ethics laws prohibit the giving or receiving of any gift in the following amounts to a Los Angeles city official:

Is the Gift Reportable?

Once a City official identifies the source of the gift and determines that the law permits acceptance of the gift, the next question for the official is whether the gift must be reported. If the gift or combination of gifts is valued at $50 or more, the City official must report receipt of the gift on his or her next Statement of Economic Interests (also known as CA Form 700). If the exact dollar amount of a gift is unknown, the official must make and report a good faith estimate of the item’s fair market value.

Are there any Exceptions?

There are some gift exceptions. Gifts from family members or partners in bona-fide dating relationship, for example, are not limited and do not need to be reported by the official. Similarly, gifts received that are not kept and are turned over to the City within 30 days of their receipt are exempted. Exceptions also apply to gifts related to "non-recurring ceremonial occasions," such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, and graduations. For instance, a City official may accept a gift valued at less than $100 at his or her wedding. These gifts may be reportable if valued over $50, and officials are still prohibited from receiving gifts valued over $100 from restricted sources.

Importantly, one common exception formerly allowed under state law has been changed. Formerly, tickets to non-profit and political fundraising events were considered under state law to have no value. Consequently, officials could accept those kinds of tickets, even from lobbyists and lobbying firms registered to lobby the official. However, as recently amended, Title 2 of the California Code of Regulations § 18946.4 provides that tickets to non-profit and political fundraisers may now have a value under certain circumstances. As a result, City officials may no longer accept tickets to a non-profit or political fundraisers as a matter of course. Rather, they must first determine if it has a value under the state’s new regulation, and if it does, whether the ticket is permissible depending on its source.

So what’s the bottom line?

It’s helpful to keep in mind that gift restrictions are triggered both by the source and value of a gift. Remember, gift restrictions exist to help ensure that City officials and employees are, and appear to be impartial in all matters that come before them. City officials may never accept gifts that are intended to influence their decision-making. Because the laws can be complex, we encourage City officials to contact us any time with specific gift questions. Our analysts are only a phone call away and can be reached at (213) 978-1960.