17 November 2011

There is controversy in the United States about the entitlement of Federal Government employees to be entertained and to receive gifts from lobbying / PR firms. The consultation period about a proposal for new rules has been extended because of the polarised responses. The Office of Government Ethics website is publishing submissions.

Some see the move as “criminalizing efforts by government officials …to learn about business trends.” This is the view of industry groups. They oppose any constraints which would limit the ability to involve officials in trade shows where the opportunity arises to broaden decision-makers understanding of the particular industry.  Officials, of course, enjoy the freebie travel and hospitality. Lobbying groups say that the rule may change the way they network, upsetting well established but low key forms of hospitality.

“Good government” organisations welcome moves to fracture what they see as a cozy relationship between Government and the lobbying industry. At present Federal officials can receive gifts from lobbyists worth less than $20 (up to a maximum of $50 per year) and all travel expenses associated with attending trade gatherings. The rule would overturn these practices.

The proposals are a response to the activities of Jack Abramoff, released recently from 3 years imprisonment for corruption. He bought influence, including regular outings for some, jetting privately to great golf destinations like St. Andrews. He commented recently that he spent millions of dollars each year as a ticketmaster for decision-makers.

A good summary of the New Zealand position was set out recently in “Avoiding improper influence” in the New Zealand Lawyer. This identifies pertinent guidance from the Auditor General and the State Services Commissioner. It is not the total picture, but if Treasury officials had stuck to these longstanding rules, they would not have brought the disrepute which their agency so publicly experienced earlier this year.

The article summarises obligations as follows;

  •  Gifts or hospitality should only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration (SSC, Understanding the code of conduct – Guidance for State servants);
  • Ceremonial gifts should remain the property of the organisation (SSC, Understanding the code of conduct – Guidance for State servants);
  • Offers of gifts or hospitality must always be assessed in terms of the purpose of the donor (SSC, Understanding the code of conduct – Guidance for State servants);
  • Gifts or hospitality should not be accepted where the acceptance has the ability to alter an entity’s or individual’s decision making (OAG, Controlling sensitive expenditure: Guidelines for public entities);
  • Staff should only be allowed to acquire infrequent and inexpensive gifts that are openly distributed by suppliers and clients (OAG, Controlling sensitive expenditure: Guidelines for public entities);
  • All other gifts or hospitality should be disclosed, recorded in a gifts register, and remain the property of the entity (OAG, Controlling sensitive expenditure: Guidelines for public entities).

www.oge.gov

www.nzlawyermagazine.co.nz/CurrentIssue/Issue172/172F6/tabid/3789/Default.aspx 17 November 2011

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