Welcome to the Ethics Challenge where you will learn about the Ethics in Public Service Act, RCW 42.52 ("the Act"). The Act is a comprehensive statute that applies to all branches of state government. The Executive Ethics Board has jurisdiction over all state employees and officers in the executive branch of state government, so this Ethics Challenge only pertains to them. While there are many sections in the Act, this Challenge will focus on ten topics that routinely impact state employees. In the interest of brevity, throughout this Challenge the term "state employee" includes both state officers and state employees as defined in RCW 42.52.010(18) and (19).

Each section of the law will be presented, with some discussion, and then you will be asked to answer questions to test your knowledge and understanding of the concepts. Let's get started...

Topic 1


Activities incompatible with public duties (RCW 42.52.020)

Intended as a general conflict of interest provision, RCW 42.52.020 provides that:

"No state officer or state employee may have an interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in a business or transaction or professional activity, or incur an obligation of any nature that is in conflict with the proper discharge" of the state employee's official duties.

What is an Incompatible Activity? Any activity that may conflict with the proper discharge of your official duties. It could be outside employment, a volunteer activity, ownership of a private business or any private activity, relationship, business, etc. that would impair/conflict with your ability to make decisions on behalf of the state.

When is there a conflict of interest?

Conflicts of interest involve the concepts of benefit and bias. Questions to ask when evaluating a potential conflict of interest include:

An interest need not be financial to create a conflict of interest. According to the law, even a chance or thought of a conflict of interest is enough for a violation -- NO TANGIBLE OUTCOME IS NEEDED.

If there could be a perceived violation, you need to step out of the situation totally. Talk to your supervisor and have yourself removed from any decision-making authority or influence in that case.

Some conflicts of interest are clearly defined in the state's ethics law. These are:

How do you deal with a conflict?

Most conflict of interest issues can be resolved easily and without resort to more drastic measures such as removal from position or resignation. The resolution of conflicts depends on disclosure and removing yourself from the conflict.

You can:

To avoid a conflict, you cannot merely delegate the activity to a subordinate.

1. While reviewing a permit for a controversial development, the developer offers you a position with his company. Can you continue to work on the review if you want to take the new job offer?

A. Yes, and expedite the review so I can begin salary negotiations.

B. No, and immediately notify my supervisor.

C. Yes. The job offer won't influence my review.

D. Yes, because I am not interested in leaving my position.

2. You are a health inspector with a partnership interest in a local restaurant. This interest has not been disclosed to your agency. You are assigned to perform an inspection of your restaurant. Do you perform the inspection?

A. No, I'll give the assignment to one of my staff.

B. Yes, a clean bill of health will reassure customers.

C. Yes and I'll review the books while I am there.

D. No, and I will inform my supervisor about my partnership interest.

3. You are an instructor for a local public university. You also own a painting company that you run privately out of your house. During the summer, your paint business gets very busy and you need to hire more painters to get the work done. Several students from your current summer class want to work part-time for you. Can you hire your current students?

A. Yes, because your private painting business is run completely on your own time.

B. Yes, because your students are not related to you.

C. No, because you currently regulate your summer school students.

D. No, because if you gave a job to one of them, you would have to give a job to all of them.

Topic 2

Financial interests in transactions (RCW 42.52.030)

You cannot participate in a transaction with the state if you have a financial or beneficial interest in that transaction. RCW 42.52.030 prohibits:

What is a financial interest in a transaction?

When you have an interest in a contact that is made by you, through you, or is under your supervision; OR

When you receive compensation from any other person beneficially interested in a contact made by you, through you, or is under your supervision.

If a decision YOU are about to make puts money in your pocket or the pocket of "other persons" including a business entity in which you are a partner, board member, managing officer, or employee, that constitutes private benefit and you cannot do it. You are also prohibited from accepting -- directly or indirectly -- any compensation, gift, or reward from any person who gets a benefit in terms of a contract, sale, lease, purchase or grant.

4. You work for the Alumni Relations Division at a state university as an event planner. Your group is planning the upcoming holiday bash for the alumni. You are part of the group selecting the caterer for this event. Your spouse owns a catering company and wants to bid on this project. Can you hire your spouse's company to cater the event?

A. Yes, as long as you disclose your relationship to your supervisor.

B. No, working with your spouse would be very difficult because you rarely see eye-to-eye.

C. Yes, they were the lowest bidder.

D. No, because you have a financial interest in this transaction.

5. You teach marine biology for a local community college. Since your book is the quintessential book on the tide pools of the Northwest, you require your students to purchase this book for your class. Can you make a profit on the sale of your book to your students?

A. No because you made the decision to require the book for your class.

B. Yes, the book is by far the best one available and students need to have the best material for learning.

C. Yes, the sales won't be very high due to the size of the class -- so it would be de minimis at best.

D. Yes, because my school requires me to publish periodically.

6. You administer a government health facility. Your spouse is the executive director of a non-profit corporation that has bid on a contract to provide services to your facility. How do you handle the situation?

A. Disclose your relationship and excuse yourself from all negotiations or discussions regarding this potential contract.

B. Ask your spouse to withdraw the bid.

C. Award the contract.

D. Tell your assistant to select your spouse because they are the lowest bidder and you know they will provide quality services.

Topic 3

Assisting in transactions (RCW 42.52.040)

While you are still a state employee, you may be prohibited from assisting others in transactions involving the state unless the assistance is part of your regular duties. RCW 42.52.040 prohibits a state employee:

From assisting another person, directly or indirectly, whether or not for compensation, in a transaction if:

In addition, a state employee may not share in compensation received by someone else for providing assistance that the employee is prohibited from providing.

If a state employee is a partner, managing officer, or employee of an entity, that entity may not assist another person in a transaction if the state employee is prohibited from assisting in the transaction.

What does "Participate" and "Transaction" mean?
"Participation" must be both personal and substantial. However, the term is broadly defined and includes, but is not limited to approval, disapproval, decision, recommendation, the rendering of advice, or investigation.

"Transaction" is also broadly defined and includes a proceeding, application, submission, request for a ruling or other determination, contract, claim, case, or other similar matter that you believe, or have reason to believe:

7. Emma works in your agency's human resources office. Her official duties include assisting people who want to file harassment complaints against the agency. Emma helps Egbert file a sexual harassment complaint. Emma subsequently goes to work for a different agency. After Emma's departure, Egbert contacts her and asks for assistance in preparing an appeal to an adverse decision. Must she decline under the Ethics Act?

A. No, she no longer works for that agency, so she can help Egbert.

B. No, Egbert got a "bum deal" so she is ethically required to help him overturn it.

C. Yes, she cannot assist Egbert because she participated in this case as a state employee.

D. Yes, she never like that kind of work and never wants to deal with it again.

8. You were an investigator for a state agency's internal audit office, but have recently transferred to another state agency's IT division to design web pages. Just prior to transferring, you completed an investigation of an employee for alleged fraudulent travel vouchers. The agency not only docked his pay, they put him on several days of leave-without-pay. Even though you investigated the matter, you felt that the punishment outweighed his actions. Yesterday, the employee, whom you have gotten to know through your investigation, contacted you and asked for your help in appealing his loss of wages. Can you assist in the appeal?

A. No because I participated in this case for the state.

B. Yes. The agency made a mistake.

C. Yes, provided I take vacation time.

D. No because I am no longer responsible for the complaint.

Topic 4

Special Privileges (RCW 42.52.070)

As a state employee, you cannot help someone to do something that others are not allowed to do simply because of your position and authority. This provision states:

"Except as required to perform duties within the scope of employment, no state employee may use his or her position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or herself, or his or her spouse, child, parents, or other persons."

If you are a supervisor, this means you cannot use your supervisory authority to exempt a subordinate from the ethics law if what they are doing is against the law as it is written. For example, if a subordinate asks you if they can use state email to give and receive client orders for their private business and you say yes, you just gave that person a special privilege or exemption from the Ethics Law. What you did was not fair and not legal.

9. You are a full-time faculty member at a state college and grow orchids in your spare time. You even belong to an orchid club that meets on a monthly basis. The college has many facilities available for groups to use and charges a nominal fee for their use. Your orchid club needs a place to meet this month, so you reserve a room through regular college channels, but you do not pay for the room. You invite your orchid club to attend the monthly meeting. Is this a violation?

A. No, the rent is so inexpensive that the college doesn't make any money anyway.

B. No, because my friends buy stuff a the bookstore, which provides more income to the school than the rent.

C. Yes, because you used state resources for your personal benefit.

D. Yes, because you used your state position to secure a special benefit or exemption.

10. You negotiate government contracts for celluar phone services. Two contractors are offering to provide discounted calling rates to all state employees who use their calling plans. Can you or any other state employee accept this offer?

A. Yes, unless the offer is contingent upon receipt of a contract.

B. No, agreeing to the offer would result in a personal benefit to employees.

C. Yes, state employees may accept discounts that are broad-based, encompass an occupational group or employee group.

D. No, because it isn't fair to the general public to get a break on your cell phone bill just because you are a state employee.

Topic 5

Compensation for outside activities (RCW 42.52.120)

No state employee may receive anything of economic value under any contract or grant outside of his or her official duties.

You may accept compensation under an outside contract or grant if:

What if your outside work is for another state agency?

Special standards govern receipt of a contract or grant with a state agency while you are otherwise employed by the state. These standards apply whenever a contract or grant is awarded or issued as a result of a non-competitive process, or when the bid of a state employee is the only bid received in a competitive process.

You must receive prior approval of the Executive Ethics Board before entering into a contract or grant. RCW 42.52.120(2)(b) and (c).

You must provide all of the following information to obtain approval:

Exempt from this requirement are situations in which:

11. You teach music at a local community college. You also play the trumpet. You want someplace to go blow your horn, but your community college doesn't have a symphony orchestra for you to play in. So, you try out and are selected for a local state university's symphony orchestra. Can you accept this job while still retaining your job teaching music?

A. No, you can't work for two state agencies at the same time.

B. No, you are already being paid to teach music.

C. No, you can only work 40 hours a week for the state in any capacity.

D. Yes as long as you get your contract with the university approved by the Ethics Board prior to starting the work.

12. You are an agency publications specialist. Another state agency calls to see if you would be interested in a sole source contract to develop brochures for a public outreach campaign. You accept the offer and perform the work on your own time. Is there an ethics problem?

A. No. I received approval from the Ethics Board.

B. No. The work is performed on my own time.

C. Yes, as a state employee I can't contract with a state agency.

D. Yes, because I develop brochures as part of my official duties.

13. A coworker performs desktop publishing services for your agency. She also has a number of personal service contracts to do the same work for other state agencies. Can she use her state computer during the lunch hour to perform her contract work?

A. Yes, as long as she is on her lunch hour.

B. Yes, with all of the budget cuts, everyone needs to do outside work to cover their household expenses.

C. No, she cannot use state resources to complete her contract work.

D. Yes because the computer is idle during that time and she is honing her skills while she completes this contract work.

Topic 6

Gifts (RCW 42.52.140)

No state employee may receive, accept, take, seek, or solicit, directly or indirectly, any thing of economic value as a gift, gratuity, or favor from a person if it could be reasonable expected that the gift, gratuity, or favor would influence the vote, action, or judgment of the employee, or be considered as part of a reward for action or inaction.

$50 Rule - Limitations on gifts (RCW 42.52.150)

Even if there is no reasonable expectation that a gift would influence a decision, state employees may only accept certain gifts and are limited to accepting up to $50 worth of gifts from a single source in a calendar year. The value of gifts given to your family member or guest is attributed to you for the purpose of determining whether the limit has been exceeded, unless an independent business, family, or social relationship exists between the donor and the family member or guest.

There are certain items that a state employee may receive because they are deemed "exempt" from the definition of gift under RCW 42.52.010(10). State employees who participate in contracting or regulation, however, may not accept those items marked with an asterisk (*):

The $50 rule does NOT apply to you if: you are in a position that: (1) negotiates or administers contracts; or (2) purchases goods or services, or (3) regulates, you are futher limited in the gifts you may receive because you would be considered a "Section 4" employee. The $50 limit does not apply to the following, but you may not accept any gift that is not included on this list.

14. Your community college sent you to attend a conference in Orlando, Florida. Your agency paid your travel costs and you are receiving travel per diem while you are away. When you checked into your hotel, you received a packet with information regarding the conference. Included in the packet was a ticket stub that entered you into a door prize drawing to be made on the last day of the conference. On the last day of the conference, they draw for the door prize and lo and behold, you win! Can you keep the prize?

A. Sure, my agency doesn't need it.

B. Of course, I'm the one who attended the conference.

C. No, because the gift is worth more than $50.

D. No, the prize belongs to my agency, not me.

15. You work for the health department and are often in the field conducting inspections. From time to time, business owners offer you refreshments and sometimes lunch. What should you do?

A. Accept. What's the big deal?

B. Overlook the minor violations.

C. Accept, but don't tell anyone.

D. Decline to accept anything from those you inspect.

16. Martha is an instructor at a state community college. One of her students gives her a beautifully wrapped holiday gift at the beginning of the final week. The student may or may not enroll in her class next quarter. Is accepting the gift a violation?

A. Of course not, students give teachers gifts all the time -- remember the apple?

B. Yes, because Martha regulates the student, she cannot accept the gift.

C. No, because the gift is worth less than $50.

D. Yes, because the student may be in her class next quarter.

17. Vera works as a gardener at a state university. Her job involves maintaining flowerbeds. The Petals Corporations supplies the university with gardening supplies but Vera's job does not involve these contractual matters. Every three months Petals gives the college's gardeners, including Vera, a new pair of gardening gloves with their beautiful logo on them valued at less than $10. Can Vera accept the gloves?

A. No, accepting the gloves from Petals would be a conflict of interest.

B. Yes, this practice has been going on for years and no one cares.

C. Yes, Vera may accept promotional items from anyone.

D. No, accepting the gloves would be a special privilege for Vera.

18. You are a receptionist for your agency. A vendor comes into the office and gives you and another receptionist a gym bag valued at $5.00. The vendor's logo is printed on the side. What do you do?

A. Decline the gym bag because it doesn't match your gym clothes.

B. Decline the gym bag because it is a gift from a vendor.

C. Accept the gym bag, but don't bring it to work.

D. Accept the unsolicited promotional item.

19. The owner of a local deli gives you a $75.00 gift certificate in appreciation for the amount of business your agency has brought in during off-site training sessions this year. Can you accept the gift certificate?

A. Yes and invite four close friends from the agency to lunch so that you don't exceed the gift limit under the ethics law.

B. Yes, you can keep the certificate to buy refreshments for the next training session.

C. No, you can thank the deli owner for the offer, but tell him/her you can't accept it.

D. Yes, and use the certificate to offset catering expenses for a neighborhood party.

Topic 7

Use of persons, money, or property for private gain (RCW 42.52.160)

State employees have access to many resources. You are expected to conserve public resources by using them only for your official job or to the benefit of the state. The law states:

No state officer or state employee may employ or use any person, money or property under the officer's or employee's official control or direction, or in his or her official custody, for the private benefit or gain of the officer, employee or another.

This section does not prohibit the use of public resources to benefit others as part of a state officer or state employee's offical duties.

The de minimis rule:

The Executive Ethics Board has adopted guidelines for exceptions to the no personal use standard under RCW 42.52.160(1). These exceptions are narrowly construed and do not apply to all uses of state resources. The Board allows limited unoffical use if:

What does this mean in practical terms on a daily basis?

This means that occasional local telephone calls for medical and dental appointments, child or elder care arrangements, transportation coordination, etc., are acceptable.

This means that occasional and brief personal email messages are acceptable.

This does not mean state resources can be used for any purpose at any time, including time "off the clock."

20. One of your employees sells beauty products on the side to coworkers. The employee hands out catalogues in the workplace, and takes and distributes orders during the lunch hour and at break times. What should you do?

A. Nothing - the employee is on her own time and is not disrupting the workplace.

B. Place an order.

C. Implement a policy that requires employees to obtain the prior approval of management before selling products.

D. Stop the activity.

21. An employee in the Department of Revenue uses her office computer after working hours to set up a database for her sister's accounting business. Is this an ethics violation?

A. No. Personal use is allowed after working hours.

B. No. She save the information to a personal zip drive.

C. Yes. The employee is using state resources to benefit a family member.

D. No. Her supervisor approved the use in advance.

22. You supervise a crew that removes dangerous trees from public property. At the end of the day, you ask them to stop by your house to remove some limbs from a tree damaged during a recent storm. Your house is on the way back to the agency. Select the correct response.

A. Using the crew to remove the limbs from my yard is wrong.

B. The crew can do the job because they finished their assigned work early.

C. It's okay as long as I pay them for the work.

D. As a supervisor I can tell the crew to do anything I want.

23. It's Friday afternoon and Kathy needs to find out the best way to get to a party after work. She is going directly from work to the party so she doesn't have time to go home before the event. She accesses Map Quest, and internet directions and map site, using her state computer. Is this a violation?

A. Yes, she may not use state resources for personal gain.

B. No, she is using the computer after work hours.

C. Yes, she cannot access a non-government website on her state computer.

D. No, her use falls under the de minimis use rule.

Topic 8

Use of Public Resources in Political Campaigns (RCW 42.52.180)

The state's ethics law strictly prohibits the use of facilities of a state agency to support or oppose candidates or ballots issues. Facilities of an agency are broadly construed to include, but are not limited to, stationery, postage, machines, equipment, use of state employees during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the agency.

Knowing acquiescence by a person with authority to direct, control, or influence the actions of the state officer or state employee using public resources in violation of this section constitutes a violation of this section.

24. Fred, a classified employee, has a fixed schedule of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. During the heated campaign for city dog catcher, Fred often stays until 8 or 9 p.m. making telephone calls or sending emails on behalf of his candidate using agency equipment. Is this a violation?

A. No, because he is on his own time.

B. No, because he logs on to his private email account and doesn't use his state email address.

C. Yes, there is no de minimis use of state resources to assist a person in their campaign for election.

D. Yes, because Fred has an interest in the outcome of the transaction.

25. Lori, a state employee, is excited about the presidential elections coming up and feels very passionate that her friends and coworkers need to vote. She sends 20 emails from her work the day before elections to urge people to "get out and vote" and encourages people to vote for her candidate. Her supervisor, Sam, gets the email, and since he has already voted via absentee ballot, he deletes the email. Sam doesn't say anything to Lori about the email. Is this a violation on Sam's part?

A. Yes, Sam has direct supervisory control over Lori and knew that she used state resources for political campaigning.

B. No, Sam is not responsible for Lori's actions.

C. No, Lori's actions were de minimis in nature.

D. Yes, this is a conflict of interest for Sam because he voted for the other candidate.

26. One of your employees brings a petition to work opposing a controversial ballot proposition. After spending the morning gathering signatures around the office, she reaches your desk. She asks you to sign the petition, arguing that state workers will lose their jobs if the measure passes. What do you do?

A. Ask her to stop circulating the petition in the workplace.

B. Sign the petition to keep your job.

C. Sign and offer to assist in the workplace campaign.

D. Avoid the issue by leaving to attend an important meeting.

Topic 9

Confidential Information (RCW 42.52.050)

No state employee may disclose confidential information gained through their job, or otherwise use confidential information for personal gain or benefit.

What is "confidential information?"

information that is confidential is not releasable upon public demand such as:

It is important to know four main points about the information you may work within your official position:

See RCW 42.56 RCW for common exemptions from public disclosure.

27. Your agency receives a public records request for a group of personnel records. One of the public documents has a handwritten sticky note containing some potentially damaging information. James provides copies of all typed documents and omits the sticky note on the theory that it might have been added later and its author is undetermined. Is this a violation?

A. No, since the origin of the sticky note is unknown, James better not disclose it.

B. Yes, James is obligated to disclose all public documents.

C. No, James may withhold any information he wants to.

D. No, James doesn't want anyone to know about the potentially damaging information.

28. Sammy works in your agency's purchasing department, where billing documents are confidential, and takes care of billing for office supplies. He thinks that his agency is paying an unreasonable amount for paper, so he makes copies of the billing for his wife who works for a paper company and offers to provide superior products at a lesser cost. Is this a violation?

A. No, the agency needs to cut costs, so this will benefit the agency.

B. Yes, because billing information is confidential information and Sammy may not use this information for his or another's benefit or gain.

C. Yes, it is a conflict of interest for Sammy.

D. Not if Sammy does this on his own time.

Topic 10

Post-State Employment (RCW 42.52.080)

Post-state employment restrictions fall into one of three categories:

The Contract Restriction

The contract restriction applies only to those state employees who are involved in the negotiation or administration of agency contracts. The restriction under RCW 42.52.080(1) prohibits a former state employee from accepting employment or receiving compensation from an employer if:

The state employee, during the two years immediately preceding termination of state employment, was engaged in the negotiation or administration on behalf of the state or agency of one or more contracts with that [the post-state] employer and was in a position to make discretionary decisions affecting the outcome of such negotiation or the nature of such administration; AND,

The contract or contracts have a total value of more than ten thousand dollars; AND,

The duties of the post-state employment include fulfilling or implementing, in whole or in part, the provisions of the contract or contracts or include the supervision or control of actions taken to fulfill or implement, in whole or in part, the provisions of the contract or contracts.

The Beneficial Interest Restriction

The two-year beneficial interest restriction does not prohibit a former state employee from doing business with his or her former state agency for a period of two years. The restriction applies only to the acquision of a beneficial interest in a contract or grant in which the employee participated. Under this provision, a former state employee may not:

The Continuing Restrictions

Several of the post-state employment restrictions are continuing. That is, there is no statutorily defined time limit that determines when these restrictions end. There are continuing restrictions on the following activities by former state employees.

29. As an agency administrator you supervise a large contract with the Jones Company. The Jones Company offers you $20,000 more a year if you leave your agency, take a position with the Jones Company, and then oversee the contract with your former agency. Can you accept this offer?

A. Yes, the Ethics Board won't have jurisdiction over me once I leave state employment.

B. No because I can never work for this contractor in any capacity.

C. No -- at least not right away. Because you were overseeing the contract as a state employee, you must wait one year before accepting a job to work on that specific contract. If Jones wanted to hire you to work on unrelated contracts in another division, that would be fine.

D. Yes, who cares what I do once I leave state employment?

30. As an experienced engineer with a state agency, you have been assigned to supervise a two-year renovation project. After 18 months, you decide to leave and accept a consulting position for a private firm to work on the same project. Is this a violation?

A. No, because I clearly have the experience.

B. No, the project is almost over and I need to think about my future.

C. Yes, since I worked on this transaction as a state employee, I cannot work on it for the state's contractor.

D. No, the firm promised to hire me if I recommended its selection for the project.