Holiday gifts for public officials: Check your list twice

If you’ve been out shopping, you’ve likely noticed stores are decking their halls and preparing for the holidays (holiday creep is a topic for another time). Many companies like to send small holiday gifts or tokens of appreciation to valued customers, clients and contacts. The question is, does your company’s list of recipients include any public officials or employees? Then you better watch out (and maybe consider checking that list twice).

Ohio law prohibits giving a gift of “substantial value” to a public official or employee if the giver is a “prohibited source.” A prohibited source is anyone that is regulated by, doing business with or seeking to do business with/interested in matters before the official/employee’s agency or political subdivision. While substantial value is not defined, the Ohio Ethics Commission has provided guidance that acceptable gifts should be of a nominal value. Think of promotional items or small food items and snacks. The Ohio Ethics Commission provides helpful guidance and you can always consult with your legal counsel for advice. That way you don’t end up on the naughty list.

Ethics, General News

Ohio House Bill 2 signed into law

Governor Mike DeWine signed Ohio House Bill (H.B.) 2 into law on Monday, May 17, 2021. H.B. 2 was drafted similarly to H.B. 13 from the last general assembly. H.B. 2 creates the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program. The grant program will be housed under the Ohio Development Services Agency (DSA), which is likely to become the Ohio Department of Development again under H.B. 110, the budget bill. DSA will receive and review applications for program grants and send completed applications to the Broadband Expansion Program Authority. The Authority will consist of the Director of Development Services (DSA Director) and the Director of InnovateOhio or their designees, along with three appointed members, to serve four-year terms with reappointments permitted, with the Speaker of the House, the Senate President and the Governor making one appointment each. For more, read the full article.

Ethics, General News

Ohio Ethics Commission issues advisory opinion

On October 2, 2020, the Ohio Ethics Commission issued formal Advisory Opinion No. 2020 – 03, addressing ethics questions about public officials attending ceremonial events. The opinion states that state or local public officials or employees many not solicit, accept or use their position “to secure an invitation to an event of substantial value from any party that is doing or seeking to do business with, interested in matters before, or regulated by his or her public agency.” Officials are also prohibited from accepting compensation (outside of what is allowed by law) for performing official duties or any act in their public capacity.

However, Ohio law does not prohibit a public official or employee from attending a ceremonial event, such as the opening of a new exhibit, ground-breaking or ribbon-cutting, or other similar event, in his or her official capacity where the official or employee is performing a ceremonial or honorary function appropriate to his or her public position. The Commission provides a list of criteria to determine if an event is objectively related to the public official’s or employee’s public position.

The opinion went into effect when it was accepted by the Commission.

Ethics

Use of executive session does not create confidentiality

The Ohio Ethics Commission recently issued Advisory Opinion No. 2020-02 outlining prohibitions under the Ohio Ethics Law related to confidential information and executive sessions. The opinion answers whether ORC 102.03(B) prohibits a present or former public official from disclosing information discussed during executive session without appropriate authorization.

The commission found that the use of executive session does not by itself create confidentiality, but that the “application of the Ethics Laws is dependent upon the facts and circumstances of each individual situation.” Matters discussed in executive session that are expressly required to be kept confidential by federal and state laws or regulation would be considered confidential. However, documents that are “public record” and not otherwise exempt under one of the exemptions to the Public Records Act “may still be subject to public disclosure even if the public body appropriately discussed it in executive session.”

Advisory Opinion 2020-02 notes “it would be unreasonable to hold that everything discussed in an executive session is statutorily confidential, absent other provisions of state or federal law expressly making the information confidential.”

Ethics

Ohio Ethics Commission extends filling deadline

On March 27, 2020, the Ohio Ethics Commission announced the extension of the filing deadline for 2019 Financial Disclosure Statement forms to July 15, 2020, the same as federal and state tax filing dates. The full press release can be read here

Ethics

JLEC gives guidance that "all invited" does not mean "will not kick you out"

The Joint Legislative Ethics Committee (JLEC) recently gave guidance that lobbyists and employers must “affirmatively invite” all members of the General Assembly or all members of the House or Senate to qualify as an “all invited” event for reporting purposes. Read the full story.  

Ethics

Campaign spying law challenged

An Ohio law that prohibits campaign spies was challenged in federal court by Project Veritas, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as engaging “almost exclusively in undercover journalism to report to the public about instances of corruption, fraud, waste and abuse.” Ohio Revised Code Section 3517.21 expressly prohibits anyone from placing an agent or employee into a political campaign for the purpose of impeding the campaign by surreptitiously collecting and reporting information without the knowledge of the candidate. Project Veritas has sued the Ohio Elections Commission to prevent enforcement of the law, which they allege is an infringement on the group’s First Amendment rights. Read the full complaint here (subscription may be required).

Ethics

Now available: 2019 contribution limits, campaign finance reporting and lobbyist reporting resource

With 2019 legislative sessions underway in both Columbus and Washington, D.C., state and federal lobbying and campaign finance regulators have issued new reporting calendars and contribution limits for the current biennium. Staying up to date on these limits and deadlines is important for anyone participating in the political process.

For our clients and friends, Bricker's Government Relations team has summarized the revised state and federal campaign contribution limits and campaign finance and lobbyist reporting calendars into a single reference guide. Download now >>

Campaign Finance, Ethics

Campaign contribution fraud ends with county executive’s indictment

A yearlong investigation involving the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the IRS resulted in the indictment of Steve Stenger, St. Louis County Executive. According to prosecutors, Stenger and others defrauded citizens “through bribery and concealment of material information.” The investigation, which has been ongoing since 2014, revealed that Stenger solicited and accepted campaign contributions in return for “favorable official action.” These favors included awards to donors of county contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Stenger then lied in public statements in an attempt to cover up his crimes. He has forfeited his law license and could spend several years in prison. For more, read the full story.

Campaign Finance, Ethics, General News

Ohio Ethics Commission's education and training opportunities

The Ohio Ethics Commission’s educational outreach initiatives, including live seminars, webinars and online courses, are designed to help public officials and employees comply with the law. The offerings are popular and well-received. In 2018 nearly 55,000 people took advantage of training across all three platforms, and participants praised the clear instruction and engaging presenters.

The Ohio Ethics Commission is offering several options for ethics law training throughout 2019, including available onsite training, an e-course entitled “The Ohio Ethics Law: Good Government in Action,” a webinar offered monthly entitled “Overview of Ohio Ethics Law,” and six at-large regional live training sessions. The e-course is approved for 1.0 general CLE hour and the regional sessions are approved for 1.5 general CLE hours.

In addition, the Ohio Ethics Commission joins with the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct each year to offer a 2.5-hour professional conduct CLE course. Three sessions are available, two in Columbus and one in Richfield, Ohio. As of this post, seats are still available for the June 5 and October 10 sessions.

All courses and training sessions are free. Onsite trainings may have a minimum attendee requirement. Please contact Susan Willeke at susan.willeke@ethics.ohio.gov with any questions or to schedule a training.

 

Ethics, General News