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What Does a Gift Tag Have to Do With Breaking the Law? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I worked on the campaign of someone who has just been elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, and I expect to work for him in the House as well beginning in January. I recently met with some experienced staffers to learn the ins-and-outs of working on the Hill. One thing they filled me in on is how strict the gift limitations are, but what really stuck out was that the permissibility of a gift supposedly can depend somehow on the language of the tag or card that comes with it. I had trouble wrapping my head around this. Is this really true? A. First, congratulations to you and your boss. Exciting times ahead.  

As for your question: Yes, believe it or not, the language on a card attached to a gift can impact the legality of accepting it. In fact, some language on a gift tag could expose you and the donor to serious liability.  

There are several sources of the limitations on gifts and other benefits members and staffers may receive, and it is important to consider them all any time you are offered a gift. One is the House gift rule. Broadly, the gift rule forbids you from accepting anything of value from anyone unless an exception applies. There is a long list of exceptions, including things such as gifts from family members, widely available opportunities and more. You should certainly familiarize yourself with the rule and the exceptions as you prepare for your job on the Hill.  

But, complying with the law doesn’t end there. Just because a gift meets an exception to the House gift rule does not mean that it might not violate some other restriction. Bribery law, for example, criminalizes gifts given to influence an official act regardless of whether they might meet a gift rule exception.  

The law that it sounds like the staffers you met with have in mind is a subsection of the federal bribery statute governing what have become known as “gratuities.” It provides that, as a government official, you may not accept anything of value given because of an official act you perform. Some have described it as a prohibition on a reward for an official act that has already been performed. The Supreme Court has said what makes a gratuity illegal is “a link between a thing of value and a specific official act for or because of which it was given.”  

What does this have to do with gift tags? The House Ethics Manual has a few examples to illustrate.  

Suppose you help introduce a bill, and you do so solely because you and your member believe it will be good for the country. Suppose also that there is a lawyer who favors the bill because it will benefit some of his clients. The lawyer sends you a small gift that meets one of the exceptions to the House gift rule, and attaches a note stating, “In appreciation for your good work on the bill.” According to the ethics manual, this would violate the ban on gratuities, and you would have to return the offering in question to the lawyer.  

Another example involves a caseworker who helps a constituent with a Veterans' Affairs claim. The following week, the constituent sends a modest restaurant gift certificate, with a note saying: “I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done for me.” Again, the manual says this is an illegal gratuity and the caseworker must return it to the constituent.  

In contrast, suppose during the holidays you receive a small gift from a lawyer that again meets one of the exceptions to the gift rules. This time, the gift tag says, “Season's Greetings to you and peers!” Accepting this gift, the manual says, “is not prohibited by the bribery and illegal gratuity statutes.” This is because there is no apparent link between the gift and any official act.  

Does any of this really matter? Yes.  

Violations of the bribery and gratuity statues are federal crimes, and carry stiff penalties including fines and jail time. Several members who have been convicted of violations of the gratuity ban have gone to jail.  

So, as you tackle all of the tasks that you and your member must accomplish to prepare for your time on the Hill, here’s one more to add to your to-do list. Learn the rules about gifts, bribery, and gratuities. They matter. And, some of them may surprise you.  

C. Simon Davidson is an attorney with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to cdavidson@mcguirewoods.com. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Related: How to Land a Job Working for a New Member of Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.