A brewing controversy over Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s trip to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner highlights how media corporations and other firms that invite public officials to events can become embroiled in government ethics matters (h/t Eric Brown’s Political Activity Law Blog). The Governor reportedly accepted an invitation to attend the WHCA at the invitation of People Magazine, and People reportedly paid his travel expenses. The Governor’s office apparently is characterizing this gift of free travel as a gift to the state rather than to him personally.
Many corporations sponsor events to which they invite public officials, and they often consider offering free food, beverages, parking, door prizes, “goodie bags,” lodging, and transportation. All of these things generally are treated as gifts under federal, state, and local gift rules. In many instances, some or all of these gifts are permissible. In other cases, they would violate ethics rules or criminal laws. Liability for violations may run solely to the public official, or, in some jurisdictions, to both the public official and the gift giver. The rules are complex and arcane. In recent years, there have been a number of gift related controversies involving state governors. We expect this will be a growing area of enforcement and attention for state attorneys general and other enforcement authorities. But even absent enforcement, as the Connecticut example demonstrates, alleged gift rule violations often generate a stream of negative news stories both for the public official and for the gift giver.