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May Hill Staffers Accept Valentine’s Day Gifts?

The third factor, however, could prove more problematic. It is the history of your relationship with the gift donor, including “any previous exchange of gifts.” Here, the history of your relationship is clearly very short, and you do not mention any previous exchange of gifts. You only met this guy once, and you have had no contact with him since. In light of this, there is a substantial risk that the House Ethics Committee could take the position that the flowers do not qualify as a gift given on the basis of personal friendship.

Unfortunately, none of the other exceptions looks any better. There are exceptions that would allow you to accept Valentine’s Day gifts from your father, your mother, your brother and even other staffers. But, no exception on its face appears to permit a gift as generous as three dozen roses from someone you only just met.

On the other hand, the ethics rules were certainly not designed to prevent staffers from enjoying Valentine’s Day. And there is no precedent for the House Ethics Committee taking public action against a staffer for accepting flowers on Valentine’s Day. Yet, technically, there remains a risk that the committee would consider this a violation of the rules.

If you do not keep them, then, what can do you with them? Ordinarily, the House gift rule requires that, when you receive an impermissible gift, you must return it promptly to the donor or pay him the market value of the gift. For obvious reasons, that could be more than a little awkward here.

Fortunately, you may have other options. The House gift rule includes a special provision for perishable items, such as flowers. “When it is not practicable to return a tangible item because it is perishable,” the rule says, “the item may ... be given to an appropriate charity.” Thus, the Ethics Committee has said that a perishable item may be donated to a local hospital, homeless shelter, religious organization or other charity.

In sum, if you chose not to keep them, your options are: Return the flowers, pay him the market value for them, destroy them or donate them to an appropriate charity. Whatever you chose, it looks like you will have a good story to tell the kids one day.

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Click here to submit questions. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship.

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