The Secretary of the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) has requested an opinion as to whether he may accept a gift from an entity doing business with his agency, given in recognition of his participation as a speaker at a conference sponsored by the entity. He also inquired as to whether and how such a gift should be reported on his financial disclosure statement.

The Secretary participated as a speaker at the 1981 "Business Outlook Conference" sponsored by the Suburban Trust Bank and the University of Maryland College of Business and Management. The conference is an annual event for which no admission fee is charged. Shortly after he spoke, the Secretary was presented with an unsolicited gift from Suburban Trust, consisting of three Maryland commemorative brass belt buckles mounted on a wood and leather plaque. They were provided in recognition of his participation in the conference.

The estimated cost of the entire gift is just over $40. It was provided to him by the Suburban Trust Company (Suburban), which the Secretary believes does business with DECD. He indicates that though he cannot name a specific contract, he thinks that a bank such as Suburban is likely to be involved in MIDFA loans, or the Community Development Administration program. He is therefore willing to assume for purposes of our consideration that Suburban does business with DECD.

At issue here initially is §3-106 of the Public Ethics Law (Article 40A, §3-106, Annotated Code of Maryland, the Ethics Law), which prohibits solicitation of gifts by officials, and limits acceptance of gifts from persons doing business with the official's agency to certain stated exceptions (section 3-106(b)). The relevant exception here is exception (2), which allows acceptance of ceremonial gifts, or awards which have insignificant monetary value. Under the exceptions of §3-106(b) a gift may be accepted so long as acceptance would not impair or appear to impair an official's impartiality or independence of judgment. We believe that in the circumstances here, the gift is a token remembrance in return for conference participation that can be viewed as a "ceremonial gift." Given the cost of the gift, its value to the recipient, and the circumstances of the Secretary's conference participation we find it reasonable to conclude that the gift was not provided by Suburban in an effort to influence the Secretary's official actions.

Since the gift fits an exception in 3-106(b) and apparently was not proffered with an intent to influence the Secretary, we conclude that he may accept it. The remaining question, then, is how it should be reported on his financial disclosure statement. It should be noted, first, that the gift was recently received and financial disclosure statements being filed for April 15, 1981 cover calendar year 1980. This gift would therefore be on next year's (1982) statement. Section 4-103(d) of the Ethics Law requires the disclosure of gifts valued over $25 from a person that is regulated by the State or does business with the State. As Suburban meets these criteria, and the gift is worth over $40, it must be reported on Schedule D of the disclosure statement. The Secretary must under subsections 4-103(d)(1) and (2) of the Ethics Law describe the gift and its value and identify the person from whom it was received.

Herbert J. Belgrad, Chairman
    Jervis S. Finney
    Reverend John Wesley Holland
    Barbara M. Steckel

Date: May 4, 1981