Want to honor a public official? Make sure you're in compliance
Recently, the Ohio Ethics Commission, in Advisory Opinion Number 2019-01, provided additional guidance on ceremonial gifts for public officials and employees. Public officials are often honored by groups for longstanding service or advocacy and may receive personalized items reflecting their contributions. Ohio law forbids public officials and employees from accepting a gift of substantial value from a party that is interested in matters before, regulated by, or doing or seeking to do business with the public employee or official’s agency. This creates a dilemma for both the public official and the group providing the ceremonial gift. The commission has determined that unsolicited and ceremonial gifts with little intrinsic, marketable or utilitarian value, such as a personalized plaque, a trophy or similar item, is not of substantial value and, therefore, public officials are not prohibited from accepting ceremonial gifts of this nature.
If the gift itself has value, then the traditional gift analysis applies: the public official must determine if the item is of substantial value and if the person or group providing the gift is a prohibited source. For example, if the elected official is given a plaque that displays precious metals, then the plaque likely has a substantial value and cannot be offered to or accepted by the public official.