Gifts and public officials: How it works in Georgia

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Rules on ethics and gifts are in the news after reports that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas took luxury trips and did not report them

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is under fire for failing to report years of luxury trips paid for by a wealthy Republican donor, according to a report by ProPublica.

Federal judges, including those on the nation’s highest court, are required to publicly disclose gifts they receive in an annual disclosure. In Georgia, judicial officials have similar responsibilities.

Georgia judges are governed by state law and a set of rules known as the Code of Judicial Conduct, which has a lengthy set of rules and guidelines regarding the acceptance of gifts.

The code prohibits judges from accepting gifts that “a reasonable person” might conclude compromises their judicial independence or impartiality. The rest of the rules go deep into the weeds of public gift-giving.

For example, judges can accept gifts from anyone, but if the total value of gifts exceed $500 per year, they have to be publicly disclosed. They can even receive gifts up to $100 in value from parties, including lawyers, with business before the court, without reporting them publicly as long as they meet the “reasonableness” standard.

Judges do not have to report free invitations to attend events sponsored by the state bar, educational activities or events sponsored by churches, civil groups or fraternal societies. They also can accept tokens like plaques and certificates.

Thomas has defended his acceptance of expensive gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow by saying they were gifts from “close personal friends who did not have business before the court.” In Georgia, state judicial officials may accept “ordinary social hospitality” paid for by friends including meals, lodging, tickets and recreational activities, but with the limitation that such activities should be “reciprocal” with judges paying the expenses for their friends “in substantially equal total amounts over a period of time,” according to the judicial code.

Georgia has gift limitations for the other branches of government as well.

State law prohibits elected officials from accepting fees for public speaking engagements or participation in seminars or conferences, with the exception of “reasonable expenses” for travel, lodging, food and other costs.

In the General Assembly, lobbyists can pay for a legislator’s food, travel and lodging as long as the payment doesn’t exceed $75 and is publicly reported. Other gifts, like event tickets or other recreational activities, are not allowed under the law if they come from lobbyists. Gifts given to lawmakers by people who are not registered lobbyists are not regulated under the state’s ethics law.

The law does include a lot of other exemptions, including allowing lobbyists to fund group events and pay for legislators to travel to industry conventions, often held at pricey beach resorts. Lobbyists can also team up, with multiple interests paying $75 on a meal for a single lawmaker and a guest, as often happens around Valentine’s Day.

Gift limitations in the executive branch are governed by the executive order of the sitting governor, but they follow a similar script that state officials should “make every effort to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Similar to the legislative rule, gifts are capped at $75 for the executive branch, under the current order.

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