As a state employee, you owe a responsibility to the people of Texas in the performance of your official duties. See Government Code Sec. 572.001. High institutional standards and high personal standards are critical to fulfilling that responsibility. There are a variety of both civil and criminal statutes which set out the ethical responsibilities of state employees. The Texas Ethics Commission is charged with interpreting, issuing advisory opinions, and enforcing certain ethics laws including Chapter 572 of the Government Code and Chapter 36 and Chapter 39 of the Penal Code. Those statutes contain provisions relating to conflicts of interest, bribery, gifts, official misconduct, and misuse of state property, among other things.
Conflicts of Interest, Bribery and Gifts
While the law regarding conflicts of interest may be legally complex, Section 572.051 of the Government Code outlines standards for state employees which if followed should prevent most conflicts of interest from occurring. Section 572.051 does not provide any penalties or sanctions at law for failure to comply with the standards it sets, though in cases of egregious noncompliance a person's behavior could constitute a crime under one of the Penal Code provisions governing the conduct of state employees. It might be useful to view the Penal Code as a cliff and section 572.051 as a fence. As long as you stay behind the fence, you won't fall off the cliff.
The acceptance of gifts by state employees is addressed in section 572.051(1), which provides that a state employee should not "accept or solicit any gift, favor, or service that might reasonably tend to influence the officer or employee in the discharge of official duties or that the officer or employee knows or should know is being offered with the intent to influence the officer's or employee's official conduct."
This simply means that you should never accept anything if it might make you do your job differently, or if you think the person giving it to you has the hope you will do your job differently. Section 572.051(5) provides, in effect, a "no tipping" rule for state employees. It states that a state employee should not "intentionally or knowingly solicit, accept, or agree to accept any benefit for having exercised the officer's or employee's official powers or performed the officer's or employee's official duties in favor of another."
For most state employees, compliance with section 572.051(1) and (5) eliminates worry about compliance with either the Penal Code or the lobby law with respect to the acceptance of gifts.
Section 571.051(2), (3), and (4) states that as a state employee you should not engage in economic activities even on your own time that might affect decisions at your state job, or that might lead you to disclose confidential information learned on the job. Simply put, you should not engage in business or investments that might make you want to do your state job differently.
The Texas Penal Code also includes provisions regarding conflicts of interest, bribery and gifts. As a state employee, you commit the offense of bribery if you solicit, offer, or accept a "benefit" in exchange for your decision, opinion, recommendation, vote, or other exercise of discretion as a state employee. Penal Code Sec. 36.02. Common sense should tell you if something is a bribe. If it is, don't take it.
Most state employees are subject to a prohibition on the acceptance of "benefits." Penal Code Sec. 36.08. For example, an employee of a regulatory agency may not accept a benefit from a person the employee "knows to be subject to regulation, inspection, or investigation by the public servant or his agency." Id. Sec. 36.08(a). Also, an employee of a state agency who exercises discretion in connection with contracts, purchases, payments, claims, or other pecuniary transactions may not accept a benefit from a person the employee knows is "interested in or likely to become interested in any contract, purchase, payment, claim, or transaction involving the exercise of his discretion." Id. Sec. 36.08(d). These prohibitions apply regardless of whether the donor is asking for something in return.
The statutory definition of "benefit" is "anything reasonably regarded as pecuniary gain or pecuniary advantage." Penal Code Sec. 36.01(5). In advisory opinions, the Ethics Commission has stated that the following gifts may be benefits: a $50 clock, a hotel room, a hunting trip, football tickets, a $160 rifle, and a $60 restaurant meal. Ethics Advisory Opinions Nos. 97, 94, 90, 69, 60 (1992). Benefits such as food, lodging, transportation, football tickets, etc., may however be permissible if accepted as a "guest." Penal Code Sec. 36.10(b). To accept something as a guest, the donor must be present.
Other advisory opinions have concluded that certain items are not benefits. A cup of coffee is not a benefit. Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 118 (1993). Small amounts of perishable food delivered to government offices are generally not benefits. Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 62 (1992). Trinkets of minimal value such as coffee mugs, key chains, and "gimme" caps are generally not benefits. Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 61 (1992). A plaque is not a benefit. Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 36 (1992). Of course, you may accept a gift from a person such as a friend, relative, or business associate with whom you have a relationship independent of that official status if the gift is given on account of that relationship rather than your official status. Penal Code Sec. 36.10(b).
Honoraria may also be considered as gifts or benefits under the Penal Code. You may not solicit, agree to accept, or accept an honorarium in consideration for services you would not have been asked to provide but for your official position. Penal Code Sec. 36.07. Thus, for example, you may not take a speaker's fee for speaking in your official capacity. Although questions about honoraria come up most frequently in regard to speeches, the prohibition applies to fees or gifts for any service that you would not have been asked to provide but for your official position. It is permissible to accept food, transportation, and lodging in connection with a speech or other service performed in an official capacity.
Official Misconduct and Misuse of State Property
As a state employee, you would commit an offense if, with intent to obtain a benefit or harm another, you intentionally or knowingly violated a law relating to your office or employment. Penal Code Sec. 39.01(a)(1). This catchall prohibition applies to any violation of a law relating to your state employment. This means, for example, that a violation of a rider to the Appropriations Act, done with intent to obtain a benefit or harm another, could be the basis of a criminal prosecution.
Also, you would commit an offense if, with intent to obtain a benefit or harm another, you misapplied any thing of value belonging to the government that has come into your custody or possession by virtue of your state employment. Penal Code Sec. 39.01(a)(2). This provision is the basis for criminal prosecutions regarding the misuse of state property for personal use or otherwise.
In this age of high ethical standards and unrelenting public scrutiny, it is imperative that all state employees be aware of applicable ethics laws. Texas governmental entities are run under an open government system, and all public employees are subject to review. If you have questions or concerns, contact the University's General Counsel.
Government Code - Section 556.004 - Prohibited Acts of Agencies and Individuals