Earlier this week, the House Committee on Ethics issued guidance on the House Gift Rule as a reminder of issues that might arise during the holiday season. Absent an exception, Members and staff are prohibited under the House Gift Rule from accepting any gifts. The Ethics Committee’s merry guidance focuses on the exceptions and presents a summary of permissible “Holiday Parties and Receptions” and “Other Holiday Gifts.”
Even though this guidance is focused on holiday-related gifts, any guidance by the Ethics Committee on the nuances of the House Gift Rule and its exceptions provides useful insight for general Gift Rule questions. For example, the following issues are discussed in this holiday memo with more detail than what is provided in the Committee’s most recent version of its Ethics Manual:
- Among the list of permissible holiday events, the Committee highlights receptions with food and beverages of “nominal value.” The memo notes that appetizers and beverages, including alcoholic beverages, are permissible, but full meals and luxury items like caviar are not. The House Ethics Manual does not address whether alcohol is permissible under this exception, and this is a point on which the Committee generally has not been explicit in the past. This new guidance is consistent with oral advice provided by the Committee, but it good to see it reiterated in writing.
- “Widely attended events” are permissible under the Gift Rule, as long as certain requirements are met related to who sends the invitations, the identity and number of attendees, and whether the event relates to the Member’s or employee’s official duties. On the final element, however, the holiday guidance memo goes slightly further than the Ethics manual and emphasizes that the “widely attended events” exception “does not apply to holiday parties that are purely social in nature and not related to one’s official duties.”
- The guidance memo states that gifts based on personal friendship are permissible. One common trap related to this exception is that your definition of a “friend” might not be the same as the Committee’s. Another trap is that the gift, even if from a friend, needs to be based on personal friendship. So a gift from a friend with business interests before the recipient could be seen as not based on the friendship. On this point, the Committee provides an example of a permissible gift from a college roommate to an individual in the House. One element that makes the gift permissible in the example is that the roommate does not contact the recipient or the recipient’s office on official matters. The part about contacts with individuals in the recipient’s office beyond the recipient is not found in a similar example in the House Ethics Manual, making the new memo’s description of this exception more narrow.
Though the Committee’s guidance memo provides several useful examples of permissible events and gifts under the House Gift Rule, each situation is different and requires separate analysis. It is important to seek legal advice before offering anything of value to a government official or employee.