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King County Board of Ethics

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Solicitation of Donations

Advisory Opinion 1075
Public Works/Solicitation of Donations

ISSUE: WHETHER IT WOULD BE A CONFLICT OF INTEREST FOR A COUNTY DEPARTMENT TO SOLICIT DONATIONS FROM AREA BUSINESSES IN SUPPORT OF A KING COUNTY EMPLOYEE WELLNESS PROGRAM?

Opinion: Both the solicitation of donations and the receipt of gifts is prohibited under the Code of Ethics. As in previous Advisory Opinions 1030, 1031, and 1034, the Board finds that it is important that no person or business in King County feels coerced or induced to support County-sponsored events. Any solicitation from a King County employee or department could be perceived as constituting either coercion or inducement.

County employees are prohibited from accepting gifts unless authorized by the County Council or unless receipt meets the definition of gift as defined in 3.04.017(G).

Statement of Circumstances: The Department of Public Works would like to solicit donations of passes from area health and fitness clubs to promote its "Heart at Work" wellness program. In exchange for a free six-week membership, the Department plans to market participating clubs in literature and promotional items for the Northwest Games, a six-week fitness contest for King County employees.

Analysis: The Board of Ethics has issued three opinions relating to solicitations from businesses in support of County-sponsored events. In Advisory Opinion 1030 the issue raised was whether County employees could solicit in-kind donations and cash contributions for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. Advisory Opinion 1031 addressed a similar issue with regard to solicitations for the annual Minority/Women's Business Awards Program. In these opinions, the Board relied on section 3.04.020(C) of the Code of Ethics in its analysis. This section states:

"Except as authorized by law and in the course of his or her official duties, no county employee shall use the power or authority of his or her office or position with the county in a manner intended to induce or coerce any other person to provide such county employee or any other person with any compensation, gift, or other thing of value directly or indirectly."
Based on this section of the Code, the Board concluded that implicit coercion or inducement exists when a County employee solicits from businesses for County-sponsored events. Furthermore, donations plainly constitute gifts as defined by section 3.04.017(G) of the Code, and gifts may only be accepted when authorized by the County Council.

The Board's conclusions on these two questions were reiterated in Advisory Opinion 1034 which examined whether the solicitation of donations and contributions for Building and Land Development's (now DDES) wellness programs violated the Code of Ethics. Here the Board explicitly stated that "all King County employees and agencies are prohibited from soliciting gifts or donations without specific authorization from the King County Council."

In the present issue before the Board, the same questions of potential inducement or coercion arise as in previous related opinions. In a draft letter to potential donors, clubs are promised promotion in King County's Northwest Games brochure and related materials in exchange for donation of a "free, six-week membership." This advertisement of a marketing opportunity clearly implies that businesses are being offered an inducement to provide membership passes. In addition, any donation of passes would constitute receipt of a gift and such receipt is precluded under the Code of Ethics unless sanctioned by the King County Council.

References: King County Code of Ethics, sections 3.04.017(G) and 3.04.020(C).

ISSUED THIS ___________ DAY OF ___________________, 199__.

Signed for the Board: Dr. J. Patrick Dobel, Chair

Members:

Dr. J. Patrick Dobel, Chair
Rev. Paul Pruitt
Timothy Edwards, Esq.

JPD/mag

cc:

Tim Hill, King County Executive
King County Council Members
Susan Baugh, Director-Ombudsman, Office of Citizen Complaints
Quentin Yerxa, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Counsel to the Board of Ethics
Paul Tanaka, Director, Department of Public Works
Viccy Salazar, Wellness Coordinator, Department of Public Works