Let's (Not) Have Another Cup of Coffee: Gifts to Public Officials
July 30, 2007
If you are engaged in lobbying the City of New York, can you offer a New York City public servant a cup of coffee? The answer is Yes and No. NYC lobbyists must comply with two different gift bans, one adopted by the City and the other by the State. In January, new NYC Conflicts of Interest Board rules defined the gifts that lobbyists may not offer or give to New York City public servants. These rules implemented legislation adopted by the City Council last year. In April, amendments to the NY State Lobbying Act took effect broadening the definition of gift. These requirements also prohibit lobbyist gifts to New York City public servants. Lobbyists are subject to both City and State restrictions if they meet the definition of lobbyist and exceed the different levels of lobbying expenditures or compensation specified in these two laws. City law lobbyist filings are made with the City Clerk; State law submissions go to the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying (soon to be absorbed into the new Commission on Public Integrity). The restrictions cover not only gifts by the lobbyist, but also by the lobbyist organization’s officers and employees engaged in lobbying or employed in its lobbying division, the spouses of these persons, their domestic partners (City law only) and the lobbyist’s clients (State law only). The State law also extends to unemancipated children; but following recent amendments, it appears that the City law may not. If you are a lobbyist, the bottom line is that you need to comply with both laws so as not to inadvertently violate either. Under State law, the cup of coffee fits within an exception for gifts of nominal value. Legislative Law §1-c(j). City law does not have a comparable exemption. Thus, a City lobbyist should not offer coffee to a City public servant, unless the offer is made in the course of a meeting under specified circumstances. See NYC Conflicts of Interest Board Rule 1-16(c)(4). Showing up at the public servant’s office, cup in hand, probably would violate the City ban, but not the State ban. On the other hand, the City ban does not extend to lobbyist clients, so seemingly it would not be inappropriate for the client to bring the coffee. May the public servant accept the coffee? The answer appears to be Yes, as long as the value is under $50. NYC Charter §2604(b)(5); Conflicts of Interest Board Rule 1-01. Oddly, perhaps, the City law would not prohibit a lobbyist giving the public servant an empty coffee mug having no substantial resale value. Conflicts of Interest Board Rule 1-16(c)(1). State law has an identical exception for mugs. Legislative Law §1-c(j)(v). But beware: the two laws are administered by different agencies, so there’s no assurance that differences in interpretation won’t arise.