In 2009, the Oregon Legislature made significant changes to the ethics laws applying to public officials and candidates. The most frequently asked questions about the law are listed below.
To whom do the ethics laws apply?
- Ethics laws apply to public officials and candidates.
- A public official is any person serving the state of Oregon or any of its political subdivisions or any other public body of the state as an elected official, appointed official, employee, agent, irrespective of whether the person is compensated for the services. ORS 244.020(14).
- This includes, but is not limited to, school board members, superintendents, business officials, office clerical staff, principals, teachers, classified staff, and volunteer coaches.
What is a Statement of Economic Interest?
The Superintendent and the District Financial Officers need to each file an Annual Verified Statement of Economic Interest form with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. School board members do not need to file this form.
What is a conflict of interest?
There are two types of conflicts of interests:
- A potential conflict of interest means a public official takes official action that could financially impact the public official, a relative, or a business involving the public official or a relative.
- An actual conflict of interest means a public official action that would financially impact the public official, a relative, or a business involving the public official or a relative.
What must I do when I have a conflict of interest?
“Public employees” are required to notify their supervisors of a “conflict of interest.” Notification allows the supervisor to evaluate whether to take the decision out of the employee’s hands and turn the responsibility over to another.
- Potential Conflicts - If a board member has a potential conflict of interest, then the board member must declare the conflict. The board member is still allowed to debate and vote on the issue.
- Actual Conflicts - If a school board member has an actual conflict of interest, then the board member must declare the conflict. It is the board member’s responsibility to make sure that the board secretary includes the conflict in the minutes. The board member is not allowed to debate or vote on the issue.
Questions about relatives
Who is considered a relative for the purposes of the ethics law?
- Spouse or domestic partner of a public official.
- Children of the public official or her spouse.
- Siblings, spouses of siblings of the public official.
- Parents and in-laws of the public official.
- Any individual who the public official is obliged to support.
- Any individual who receives the public officials employment benefits (e.g. health insurance), or from whom the public official receives benefits.
Can I hire my sister?
No. A public official may not participate in employment decisions regarding relatives or household members. Ethics laws seek to prohibit nepotism in employment decisions and public officials may not participate in interviews, debates, or discussions regarding the hiring or firing of relatives or household members.
Can I write a reference for my relative?
Yes, a public official may serve as a reference or provide a recommendation.
What are the two exceptions to the prohibition against participation in employment decisions regarding relatives or household members?
First, the class exception: If the public official’s action affects a class of people (including his/her relative) to the same degree, then the nepotism provisions are not violated.
Second, the unpaid volunteers exception: Generally, nepotism provisions do not apply employment decisions regarding unpaid volunteers (except for board members).
I am my spouse’s supervisor. Is that acceptable?
Maybe. Generally, a public official may not directly supervise relatives or household members. However, a school district may adopt policies specifying when a public official acting in an official capacity may directly supervise a person who is a relative or household member.
Financial gain questions
What is the “but for” test?
A public official shall not use the official position to obtain financial gain or avoid financial detriment that would not otherwise be available but for the public official’s position. ORS 244.040.
What is an example of unlawful financial gain?
Using district equipment (e.g. phones, computers, wood shop tools, vehicles, or storage space) when the public does not have the same access to this equipment.
What is NOT considered unlawful financial gain?
Anything acquired through the official compensation package is not “financial gain.” Also, reimbursement of expenses, unsolicited awards for professional achievement, and honorariums are not considered “financial gain.”
How does the rule prohibiting financial gain affect contracts?
Public officials may not directly receive a beneficial interest in a contract which they authorized for the two years following the contract’s authorization.
What is the law regarding accepting gifts?
Generally, receiving a gift valued at greater than $50 from someone with a legislative or administrative interest in the public body is prohibited. The limitation applies to public officials, as well as the official’s relatives and household members.
What is considered a gift?
A “gift” is something of economic value received by the official, his relatives, or household members for a value less than is required from the public.
When can I accept an entertainment gift?
Entertainment gifts refer to invitations to events or activities put on for the purpose of recreation or amusement. (E.g. concerts, plays, sporting events, hunting). Generally, these gifts from one with a legislative or administrative interest in the public body are subject to the $50 annual limit.
How does the gift limit apply to meals and beverages?
Food and beverages consumed in the presence of the buyer is subject to the $50 limit. However, you may accept food and beverage at a reception when it is an incidental part of the reception. Also, food or beverage consumed at the event when the public official represents the public entity is not a gift.
What gifts are not prohibited by ethics law?
- Gifts of any value if the giver does not have a legislative/administrative interest in the public entity.
- Gifts of $50 or less from a single source with a legislative/administrative interest in the public entity are acceptable.
- Gifts received as part of usual or customary practice of a person’s private employment that bears no relationship to the person’s public position.
- Unsolicited awards of appreciation with a resale value of less than $25 dollars (e.g. engraved plaques).
- Reasonable expenses provided to the public official, relatives, or staff when the public official is representing the public entity or speaking in various forums.
- Reasonable expenses paid to a public school employee for accompanying students on an educational trip.
Legislative or administrative interest questions
What is a “legislative or administrative interest?”
The definition of “legislative or administrative interest” is an economic interest, distinct from that of the general public, in any matter subject to the vote or decision of the public official (acting in the capacity of a public official). For example, if the district is soliciting bids on a construction project, a bidding company likely has a “legislative or administrative interest” in the district. In general, if a business sells something to a school district or bids on a district’s request for proposals, then the business has a “legislative or administrative interest.”
When does an employee have “legislative or administrative interests?”
In an employee-supervisor relationship, typically the employee has a “legislative or administrative interest” in the supervisor as the employee has an economic interest in the actions of supervisors. For this reason, gifts from an employee to a supervisor are subject to the $50 annual gift limit. On the other hand, it is not a violation of ethics laws if a supervisor gave a gift over $50 to an employee since the same legislative/administrative interest does not exist.
Who enforces ethics laws?
The Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC) is the administrative agency that enforces Oregon’s ethics laws. The OGEC was created in 1974 by a state-wide ballot measure in the shadow of the Watergate scandal. The set of ethics laws found in the Oregon Revised Statutes were created at the same time.
What are the penalties for ethics violations?
The maximum penalty for an ethics violation is $5,000. In addition to this penalty, if a public official financially benefited by violating Oregon’s ethics laws, the OGEC can impose a civil penalty in an amount equal to twice the amount the public official realized as a result of the violation.
Note: OSBA will have updated ethics policies reflecting the 2009 legislative changes as soon as the Oregon Government Ethics Commission finalizes its rules and OSBA’s policies are approved by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.