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HoHo Hold That Gift To Public Officials

Tis the season to give and receive – so why not show our appreciation to our clients, stakeholders and colleagues, right? Yes, but not so fast when it comes to public officials. Public officials we deal with as part of our business don’t fall into the same category as other business contacts. Public officials, including politicians, their families and their staffers, are often not allowed to receive gifts. In instances where they are allowed, there are strict rules around these exemptions and they generally have to publicly disclose the gifts they accept.

By
Hande Bilhan
,
on
December 10, 2014

Tis the season to give and receive – so why not show our appreciation to our clients, stakeholders and colleagues, right? Yes, but not so fast when it comes to public officials. Public officials we deal with as part of our business don’t fall into the same category as other business contacts. Public officials, including politicians, their families and their staffers, are often not allowed to receive gifts. In instances where they are allowed, there are strict rules around these exemptions and they generally have to publicly disclose the gifts they accept.

All this should have you thinking and checking the rules twice so you don’t end up on the government’s – or on the public – naughty list this year.

You need to keep in mind that the rules internationally and even regionally within the same country vary widely. Some countries like Canada and the US have even developed rules that would apply to your gift giving abroad. If a corporate gift can be reasonably viewed as designed to influence the decision of a foreign public official with regards to a business dealing that you have, in the extreme this could be considered bribing a foreign official. In Canada, for example, this could lead you to face criminal charges under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act. The same can happen locally.

Aside from any criminal charges, there is a great risk of reputational damage if your generosity is perceived to be influence peddling. You worked hard to build your reputation – don’t squander it!

All this isn’t to say that you are never allowed to recognize a government official during the holiday season – it just means that you have to exercise greater caution and due diligence.

  • As a rule of thumb, modest tokens of appreciation are generally acceptable. In most jurisdictions you are unlikely to face enforcement action if you are giving modest gifts, offering modest hospitality or making modest contributions to a charity on your stakeholders’ behalf.
  • Safest gifts may be company promotional products such as pens or mugs bearing your company’s name along with a nice greeting card. You can probably even safely add a little coffee card in there and still not come under scrutiny for trying to create undue influence.
  • It is however never alright to offer expensive gifts such as vacations, jewellery, or financial benefits to the official, their staff or their family. Even extravagant meals that would not be reasonably considered “business-like” can get you and your favourite public official into hot water. If you are not sure whether your gift might cross the line from “modest” to “extravagant”, perhaps it’s best to dial your gift idea back rather than expose yourself and your organization to unnecessary risk.

Regardless of what your gift idea is, it is wise to do your homework before acting on it. If you are a large organization, it may be worthwhile for your counsel to draft a public gift giving policy for your company, if you don’t already have one in place. In the case a smaller organization, there are a lot of resources for you to draw on before you make your gift giving decision. You can also consult a reputable GR firm or external counsel to guide you. Bear in mind again though that the rules are different for different levels of government and in different jurisdictions. So remember that the guidance you get, say for Alberta Provincial officials would not necessarily be the same for Ontario Provincial officials. Neither would the same rules apply to say Toronto Municipal officials. You can visit some helpful links to get you started on your due diligence

Best of the season and happy giving!

Hande Bilhan

www.sagepublicaffairs.com

Connect with me on Linkedin ca.linkedin.com/in/handebilhan/

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