LEGISLATIVE ETHICS BOARD RULE 3: PRIVATE USE OF STATE RESOURCES
(1) Introduction. Public resources are entrusted to legislators and legislative employees to further the public interest. Appropriation of public facilities, equipment, services, and personnel for personal benefit can undermine this trust and impedes the proper performance of government's work. At the same time, legitimate need exists for limited exceptions to this rule. Where use is incidental, infrequent, involves de minimis or no cost to the state, does not interfere with performance of official duties, and is reasonable in light of legitimate needs and expectations of the public work force, neither the public trust nor government efficiency suffers to any significant degree. This rule defines the circumstances when such limited exceptions are appropriate.
Adoption of this rule is based on the premise that all legislators and legislative employees will use good judgment to protect public resources and to fulfill the obligations stated in the policy of the ethics act: "State officials and employees of government hold a public trust that obligates them, in a special way, to honesty and integrity in fulfilling the responsibilities to which they are elected and appointed. Paramount in that trust is the principle that public office, whether elected or appointed, may not be used for personal gain or private advantage." This trust is grounded in the personal responsibility of each legislator and employee.
(2) Purpose and scope. This rule provides guidance on the proper use of state resources. It is not intended to cover every situation that could arise regarding such resources. Further clarifications may be sought from the board.
The Senate and House of Representatives are encouraged to adopt policies applying these principles to their unique circumstances. Nothing in this rule is intended to limit the ability of the Senate and the House of Representatives to adopt policies that are more restrictive. However, violation of a more restrictive Senate or House of Representatives policy will not constitute a violation of RCW 42.52.160, but will constitute a violation of Senate or House of Representatives policy.
(3) General rules.
(a) Legislators and legislative employees may not use state resources including any person, money, or property under the legislator's or employee's official control or direction or in his or her custody for private benefit or gain of the legislator or employee or any other person except on an incidental and infrequent basis as provided in these rules. This prohibition does not apply to the use of public resources to benefit another person as part of the legislator's or employee's official duties.
(b) If there is no actual cost to the state or the cost is de minimis, if there is a public benefit, and if the use does not interfere with the performance of official duties, then infrequent and incidental use of state resources for private benefit may be permissible.
(i) The cost to the state is de minimis if the actual expenditure of state funds is so small as to be insignificant or negligible.
(ii) A public benefit under this rule may be direct or indirect, such as improving employee morale or activities that improve the work-related job skills of a legislator or employee.
(4) Special qualifications and limits.
(a) A legislator or legislative employee may not make private use of state resources for any campaign related activity. Such a use of state resources is not authorized by this rule and may also be prohibited by RCW 42.52.180, subject to the exceptions in RCW 42.52.180(2) regarding normal and regular conduct of an elected official's office and certain permissible communications about ballot propositions.
(b) A legislator or legislative employee may not make private use of any state property which has been removed from state facilities or other official duty stations, even if there is no cost to the state. Use of computers which have been authorized to be taken out of the office for official purposes is permitted as an exception to this rule, to the same extent as personal use of such computers is permitted when located in a state facility or other official duty station.
(c) A legislator or legislative employee may not make private use of any state property which is consumable such as paper, envelopes or spare parts, even if the actual cost to the state is de minimis.
(d) A legislator or legislative employee may not make private use of state computers or other equipment to access a computer network or other database for personal use unless there is no cost to the state and the use does not interfere with the performance of the legislator's or the employee's official duties. Legislative electronic mail and internet uses which do not incur charges are examples of uses which meet the no-cost test.
(e) In general, a legislator or legislative employee may not make private use of state resources and then reimburse the legislature so there is no actual cost to the state. However, the Board recognizes that in some limited situations, such as legislators or employees working at remote locations, a system of reimbursement may be appropriate. Any system of reimbursement must be established by the Senate or House of Representatives in advance and must result in no cost to the state. To be valid under this rule a reimbursement system must be approved by the Board.
(5) Guidelines and hypothetical examples.
(a) Questions to ask yourself:
(i) Will my personal use of public resources result in added costs or any other disadvantage to the legislature? Am I using this resource in order to avoid personal expense?
(ii) Are my supervisors aware of my personal use of public resources? Do I feel a reluctance to discuss this subject with my supervisor or my fellow employees?
(iii) Am I confident that my use of legislative equipment will not compromise the security or integrity of legislative information, software, or the legislative information network?
(iv) Are public resources being used for purposes that could be embarrassing to the legislature by creating an appearance of impropriety?
Example 1: An employee makes a local telephone call home every afternoon while on break to make sure the employee's children have arrived home safely from school. This is not an ethical violation. There is no cost to the state and since the call takes place on the employee's break it will not interfere with the performance of the employee's duties.
Example 2: An employee operates an outside business. Every day the employee makes or receives five to ten business calls using a state telephone. All of the calls are local calls. This is an ethical violation. Although there is no cost to the state, making and receiving private calls throughout the day interferes with the performance of the employee's official duties because the employee is conducting private business during working hours.
Example 3: A legislator has employment other than the legislative position. While in Olympia during legislative session, the legislator makes or receives five to ten business calls per day using the state telephone. All of the calls are local or paid with a personal credit card. This is not an ethical violation. RCW 42.52.330 directs the board to interpret the ethics laws in light of the constitutional principle that the legislature consists of citizen-legislators. Fulfilling the concept of the part-time legislature by retaining contact with outside employment does not interfere with the performance of the legislator's duties.
Example 4: An employee posts a notice to sell a used car on the office bulletin board. The notice gives the employee's home telephone number for those interested in inquiring about the car. This is not an ethical violation. There is no cost to the state and posting the notice will not interfere with the performance of official duties since those who want to inquire about the car can call the employee at home.
Example 5: Once a year, during a two-week period, an employee sells candy bars to support a youth soccer team. The employee leaves the candy bars in an employee common area and employees may buy the bars at their leisure. This is not an ethical violation. There is no cost to the state and the transactions do not interfere with the performance of official duties.
Example 6: Every spring a group of employees meet at lunch time to organize an agency softball team. The meeting is held in a conference room that is not needed for agency business during the lunch hour. This is not an ethical violation. There is no cost to the state and since the meeting takes place during the lunch hour it does not interfere with the performance of the employees' official duties.
Example 7: An employee is taking a night school class and after working hours uses a legislative computer to do homework. The employee prints the homework using the office printer and personal paper. The appropriate official of the Senate or House of Representatives has determined by advance written approval that the class will enhance the employee's job skills. This is not an ethical violation. The use of the office computer and printer will result in some cost to the state. However, the cost is negligible and the employee is using personal paper. Since the class will enhance the employee's job skills there is a public benefit and, since the activity takes place after working hours it will not interfere with the performance of the employee's official duties.
Example 8: After working hours an employee uses the office computer and printer to compose and print reports for a private business using personal paper. This is an ethical violation. The use of the office computer and printer will result in some cost to the state. Although the cost is negligible, there is no public benefit to the state from the employee's conducting his private business.
Example 9: An employee is in the legislative intern program and is a student at a state four-year university. When time is available, the intern uses a legislative computer to work on a paper as part of an assigned school project. The intern also communicates occasionally with the supervising professor regarding the project using electronic mail and state-paid long distance telephone calls.
This is not an ethical violation. The internship program is a combination education and work experience which is specifically designed by the legislature to combine academic and professional experiences. The use of work time and resources is not sufficient to interfere with legislative duties, and there is a stated public benefit.
Example 10: Legislative equipment includes a video tape player. One night an employee takes the machine home to watch videos of a family vacation. This is an ethical violation. Although there is no cost to the state an employee may not make private use of state equipment removed from state facilities or other official duty station.
Example 11: An employee is authorized to do temporary work in another location away from the employee's usual duty station. To perform official duties the employee takes an office laptop computer which has been checked out for this purpose from the legislature. The employee uses the computer to do homework for a class. The appropriate official of the Senate or House of Representatives has determined by advance written approval that the class will enhance the employee's job skills.
This is not an ethical violation. The same considerations which allow the use in Example 7 apply as long as the computer has been authorized for official business away from the legislative office.
Example 12. Two employees use the legislative computer network to play a game of chess via electronic mail during their lunch hour. This is not an ethical violation because there is no cost to the state and the game does not interfere with official duties.
Example 13: A legislative employee returns a long-distance telephone call to a name and number that the employee does not recognize. Upon learning that the call is personal rather than business, the employee arranges for the call to take place on personal time. The employee notes the time of the call, and makes a reimbursement pursuant to Senate and House of Representatives' telephone use policies. This is not an ethical violation. The charge to the state was unintentional, and the Board has approved the procedures of the legislative telephone policies.
Example 14: A legislator conducts stock trades on a state-issued laptop computer. This is an ethical violation. While conducting a stock trade may not interfere with the performance of legislative duties, it is an improper use of state resources for private gain. However, occasional viewing of general stock market activity would fall within the de minimis use exception.
Example 15: For convenience, while unable to access a home computer during the legislative session, a legislator establishes an e-mail account with a private Internet provider for the receipt of personal e-mails on his or her computer. This is not an ethical violation, so long as, (1) there are no actual costs to the State for establishing or accessing the e-mail account, and (2) the personal e-mails received or sent from the account are not campaign related and (3) account activity does not interfere with the performance of legislative duties.