Legislative Ethics: When to Just Say No to Gifts

by Jennifer Gilroy

As mentioned in previous articles, Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution (commonly referred to as “Amendment 41”) generally prohibits legislators from:

  1. Asking for or accepting gifts worth more than $65 from any one source in a given year; and
  2. Accepting any amount of money, forbearance, or forgiveness of indebtedness.

However, the legislator can accept the gift if the legislator provides lawful consideration that is at least equal to the value of the gift, money, forbearance, or forgiveness of indebtedness. But even if the legislator does not provide lawful consideration for the gift, Amendment 41 offers several exceptions to these two gift bans. The legislator may accept a gift that is:

  • A campaign contribution;
  • Something trivial, of less value than $65;
  • An unsolicited token or award of appreciation;
  • Unsolicited information material, publications, or subscriptions related to the legislator’s official duties;
  • Admission to and the cost of food or beverages at a reception or meeting at which the legislator is scheduled to speak as part of a program;
  • Reasonable expenses paid by a nonprofit organization or other state or local government for attendance at a convention, fact-finding mission or trip, so long as the person is scheduled to deliver a speech, make a presentation, participate on a panel, or represent the state or local government, but the non-profit organization must receive less than five percent of its funding from for-profit organizations or entities;
  • Given by an individual who is a relative or personal friend of the legislator on a special occasion; or
  • Part of the legislator’s regular pay in the normal course of the legislator’s employment.

In addition to prohibiting legislators from accepting certain gifts and things of value, Amendment 41 also prohibits professional lobbyists from giving legislators any gift or thing of value of any kind or nature, regardless of the gift’s value. The only exceptions to this prohibition are for campaign contributions and gifts a professional lobbyist makes to members of the  lobbyist’s immediate family. Based on this gift ban, members of the General Assembly are well advised not to accept gifts in any amount and of any value from professional lobbyists. That’s right, not even a cup of coffee.

Want to test what you’ve learned about gifts you may and may not accept? Here are some hypothetical situations for your consideration:

Situation #1.  You are a brand new legislator from Larimer County and you are delighted to receive a letter from the President of Colorado State University offering you two tickets to the highly anticipated CU-CSU football game. You know that the tickets have a value of approximately $150 per ticket. You also know that they are having a difficult time selling enough tickets to fill the stadium for this game.

May you accept the complimentary football tickets?

  1. YES, because the big game is going to be at Empower Field at Mile High and the school sponsors have not sold nearly enough tickets to fill the stadium. You would be providing a huge benefit to CSU and CU, and really the state of Colorado, by spending your valuable time at this nationally televised football game. In fact, you consider your contribution of time to be worth at least as much, if not more than, the value of the tickets you are receiving.
  2. NO, because the value of the tickets exceeds $65 and none of the exceptions to the gift ban applies, accepting the tickets would violate the Amendment 41 gift ban.
  3. YES, because the following statement is printed on the bottom of the letter, “Because these tickets are provided by the University, which is a public entity and is not considered a ‘person’ under Colorado Amendment 41, this courtesy is not governed by Amendment 41.”
  4. YES, because one of the exceptions to the Amendment 41 gift ban allows a state government to pay the reasonable expenses for you to attend a convention, fact-finding mission or trip, or other meeting. A CU-CSU football game could be considered a “meeting” under this exception.

The correct answer is 2. Amendment 41 prohibits you from accepting a gift valued at more than $65. Because the value of these tickets would exceed $65, because CSU is a “person” from which you may not accept most gifts, and because none of the exceptions to the Amendment 41 gift ban applies to this situation, you should not accept the tickets.

 Situation #2. You’ve been invited to attend a legislative reception hosted by the Colorado Florists Association. This is a popular annual event and, although you first thought you were invited because of the farmers’ market bill you sponsored last session, you’ve since learned that every member was invited and many of your colleagues plan to attend. The invitation indicates that there will be hot hors d’oeuvres and two drink coupons for each attendee. The invitation also states that the total value to each attendee does not exceed $65. You have also learned that the reception is being paid for by the association’s contract lobbyist.

May you attend the Colorado Florists Association’s reception?

  1. YES, because the value of the reception is less than $65 and you have not and will not accept any other gifts from this lobbyist for the rest of the year.
  2. YES, because you do not intend to eat or drink anything at the event.
  3. YES, because you have been asked to speak at the event about the farmers’ market bill you sponsored last session.
  4. NO, the constitutional prohibition against gifts in any amount from a professional lobbyist is absolute and clear.

The correct answer is 4. Amendment 41 prohibits a professional lobbyist from giving a member of the General Assembly (among other public officials and employees) any gift or thing of value of any kind, regardless of value. In IEC PS 09-01 concerning gifts from lobbyists, the IEC recognized this gift ban as an absolute prohibition. This prohibition expressly includes food and beverages. The only exceptions to this prohibition are for political campaign contributions and gifts to members of the professional lobbyist’s immediate family. Because neither of those exceptions applies in this case, it is inadvisable for you to accept this gift.