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Understanding Public Service Ethics Laws


Understanding Public Service Ethics Laws

In California, state and federal laws create a complex set of requirements laws that guide elected officials and agency staff in their service to their communities.

As extensive and complex as these laws are, it is important to remember ethics laws only constitute minimum standards for officials’ conduct. The law is a floor for public official conduct, not a ceiling: just because a particular course of action is legal does not mean it is ethical. Download the full publication here.


Personal Gain

Public service is about that: service. There are a variety of laws designed to prevent public servants from using their office for personal financial gain.

This section offers resources to help local officials and others understand those laws.


Gifts & Other Perks
The Essence of Democracy

In monarchies, public officials receive special privileges as a result of their positions. By contrast, the virtue of a democracy is that leaders understand those they govern because leaders do not enjoy special privileges

A number of laws limit “perks” enjoyed by public servants. These restrict the income they make, what uses can be made of public resources and receipt of gifts and other gestures.


Transparency Laws

In California, a number of laws enable the public and the media to obtain information about public official activities and the decision-making process.


Fair Process Laws

Local officials typically care deeply about their communities and the decisions they must make on the communities’ behalf.

Local officials also are stewards of the decision-making process. A number of California laws relate to fairness in those processes.


Federal Ethics Laws

California has such an extensive set of laws to promote public trust and confidence in public officials that it’s easy to just focus on those. However, there is a body of federal ethics laws as well.

Such laws are enforced by the federal government; typically the local US Attorney’s Office, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


Consequences for Ethics Laws Violations

Violations of California and federal ethics laws are punishable by a variety of civil, criminal and administrative penalties, depending on the severity of the violation and the degree of intent to violate the law that enforcement entities are able to demonstrate. Legal penalties are often only a small part of the overall cost of being the subject of an investigation for ethics laws violations.

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