Gifts and Bribes
These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for
Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by Senior Fellow
Judy Nadler and Communications Director Miriam Schulman. The
Center provides training in local government ethics for public
officials. For more information, contact Judy
What are gifts and bribes?
What do gifts and bribes have to do with ethics?
What ethical dilemmas do gifts and bribes present?
Resources on gifts and bribes
What are gifts and bribes?
Defining gifts and bribes may seem like a simple-minded activity,
but, try posing the question another way, and you will see why
this is an important issue in government ethics: What is the
difference between a gift and a bribe? A gift is something of
value given without the expectation of return; a bribe is the
same thing given in the hope of influence or benefit.
Because it is often impossible to determine the expectation
of the giver, all federal, state, and local officials, both
elected and appointed, are governed by rules restricting gifts.
In some cases, gifts over a certain amount are disallowed; in
others, they must simply be reported. These rules can vary significantly
from locality to locality, indicating disparities in each legislature's
understanding of when a gift becomes a bribe. (A
summary of each state's regulations is offered by the National
Conference of State Legislatures.)
Gifts and bribes can be actual items, or they can be tickets
to a sporting event, travel, rounds of golf, or restaurant meals.
In this context, it is well for government officials to remember
the old saying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch,"
or even a free pencil. While many scoff at the idea that a pencil
or notepad from a developer may influence political decision
making, one question needs to be answered: Why does the developer
go to the trouble and expense of making these items?
To answer, we can look at analogous experience from another
Haavi Morreim has studied the influence of drug company marketing
on physicians' prescribing habits. Her observation: When
you ask doctors whether this kind of drug marketing is effective,
the answer is always the same: "It doesn't influence me
at all. They're not going to buy my soul with a laser pointer."
The truth is
this kind of advertising is crucial to sales.
A doctor is not going to prescribe something he or she has never
heard of, and it's the drug representative's job to get the
products' names in front of the physicians."
Similarly, a member of the zoning commission who has been keeping
a notepad from XYZ Builders next to his phone will remember
the company when XYZ brings a matter before the commission.
While no one is suggesting legislation that would prevent doctors
or government officials from accepting inexpensive doodads,
ethical politicians will recognize that any gift from someone
with business before him or her is intended to exert an influence.
What do gifts and bribes have to do with
Political decisions are supposed to be made on the merits of
the case, not based on whether or not the decision maker has
received a lovely case of wine from one of the parties. This
is a simple matter of fairness. When decision makers take gifts,
even if their votes are not influenced, they give the appearance
of being on the take, which undermines public confidence in
What ethical dilemmas do gifts and bribes
People do not go into government work to make a lot of money.
Especially at the local level, elected officials may receive
only token payment for the number of hours they put into the
job. In this context, it is tempting to say that tickets to
the local performing arts center or sporting arena are well-deserved
perks of office. Some even argue that attending such events
is part of the job and crucial to understanding the experience
of citizens who use these venues.
On the other side, such gifts may well influence officials
when they need to determine whether the performing arts center
should expand or whether the arena can add retail outlets that
local businesses oppose. Also, such gifts can create a slippery
slope, with officials coming to expect VIP treatment and making
local businesses feel coerced into offering it so that they
can receive a fair hearing.
By the same token, it is incumbent upon businesses to comply
with government regulations on gift giving. While it may be
common in the private sector to acknowledge important customers
with extravagant holiday gifts, this practice is disallowed
in the public sphere; the gravel company that tries to reward
the mayor of a city that has made a big purchase with 10 pounds
of expensive chocolate simply puts the mayor in the awkward
position of returning the gift.
Resources on Gifts and Bribes
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About Ethical Decision Making on This Web Site
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