Frequently Asked Questions
Powers and Duties:
Q: Can the State Ethics Commission file criminal charges and/or can it remove a public official/public employee from office?
A: Although violations of the Ethics Act may be charged as a criminal violation of law, only the District Attorney or Attorney General may file criminal violations of the Ethics Act. The Commission is empowered to find administrative violations of the Ethics Act, order restitution and treble penalties, and can recommend or refer any matter for prosecution by law enforcement. The Ethics Act does not provide authority for the Commission to remove an individual from their office or employment – even after a finding of a violation of the Ethics Act.
Q: Does the Commission investigate violations of the Sunshine Act?
A: No. The Commission does not have jurisdiction over the Sunshine Act. Questions and concerns about violations of the Sunshine Act (65 Pa.C.S. §§ 701-716) should be directed to the county district attorney.
Q: Does the State Ethics Commission have jurisdiction over judicial officers or judicial employees?
A: No. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has exclusive jurisdiction over judicial officers and judicial employees. See also L.J.S. v. State Ethics Commission, 744 A.2d 798 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000); Billotte, Opinion 00-005.
Statement of Financial Interests (SFI):
Q: Can I file my Statement of Financial Interests online instead of filling out a paper form?
A: Yes. Your Statement of Financial Interests can be filed online at the State Ethics Commission’s Website as follows: Online Filing. All Filers will need to submit a paper version and/or a copy of their electronically filed form to all required filing locations if it is other than the State Ethics Commission.
Q: Which sections of the Statement of Financial Interests (SFIs) are most often incomplete, requiring the form to be returned to the filer for correction?
A: There are two sections that are frequently left blank. Block 5 (Governmental Entity) and Block 7 (Year). Block 5 refers to the name of the Entity where the filer currently serves or, if a candidate, intends to serve as a Public Official/Public Employee. The most frequent Government Entities names usually include the following: department, agency, authority, borough, board, commission, county, school district, township, etc. Block 7 (year) is the calendar year for which the filer is filing the form. For example, if the form is being completed in the calendar year 2015, block 07 should read “2014” and all information in blocks 08 through 15 should represent financial interests for calendar year 2014.
Q: What creditors are required to be reported in Block 9 (Creditors) of the Statement of Financial Interests (SFI)?
A: This block contains the name and address of any creditor and the interest rate of any debt over $6,500.00 regardless of whether such debt is held solely by you or jointly by you and any other individual (including your spouse) where each obligor is fully responsible for the obligation. A joint obligation with other persons, for which the filer is responsible only for a proportional share that is less than the reporting threshold, is not required to be reported. Car loans, school loans, credit cards, personal loans and lines of credit must be listed on the form if the balance owed was in excess of $6,500.00 at any time during the calendar year. Do not report a mortgage or equity loan on your home (or secondary home) or loans/credit between you and your spouse, child, parent or sibling. If you do not have ANY reportable creditor, then check the box next to “NONE”.
Q: What Direct or Indirect Sources of Income must be filled in Block 10 of the Statement of Financial Interests (SFI)?
A: List the name and address of each source of $1,300.00 or more of gross income regardless of whether such income is received solely by you or jointly by you and another individual, such as a spouse. “Income” includes any money or thing of value received or to be received as a claim on future services or in recognition of services rendered in the past, whether in the form of a payment, fee, salary, expense, allowance, forbearance, forgiveness, interest, dividend, royalty, rent, capital gain, reward, severance payment, proceeds from the sale of a financial interest in a corporation, professional corporation, partnership or other entity resulting from termination/withdrawal therefrom upon assumption of public office or employment or any other form of recompense or combination thereof. The term refers to gross income; it includes prize winnings and tax-exempt income but does not include gifts, governmentally mandated payments or benefits, retirement, pension or annuity payments funded totally by contributions of the public official or employee, or miscellaneous, incidental income of minor dependent children. Some examples follow: 1) if you receive monthly pension payments of $1,300.00 or more, where the employer has contributed in whole or in part to your pension, or if you own a 401K account that has generated dividends, distributions or capital gains totaling in the aggregate of $1,300.00 or more, you must list it here; 2) if you sell a property and you have capital gains from that property, and each source is $1,300.00 or more, you must list it here; and 3) If, for example, you are a doctor or lawyer and you receive income from multiple individual clients in an amount of greater than $1,300.00, you should list the name and address of your firm or office, not the individual clients.
An inheritance received from a family member is not considered “income” for purposes of financial disclosure under the Ethics Act unless the inheritance would be expressly designated as a payment for, or in recognition of, services.
An inheritance received from a family member would ordinarily be considered a gift that would not have to be disclosed on the Statement of Financial Interests as per Section 1105(b)(6) of the Ethics Act.
If you do not have ANY reportable source of income, then check the box next to “NONE”.
Q: What must be filled in Block 13 (Office, Directorship or Employment in any business) of the Statement of Financial Interests (SFI) form?
A: This block focuses solely on your status as an officer, director or employee, regardless of income. List the name and address of the business entity for any office that you hold (for example, President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer), any directorship that you hold (through service on a governing board such as a board of directors), and any employment that you have in any capacity whatsoever, as to any business entity. For example, if you are employed by a business, you should list the name of the business and list your position as “employee.” Additionally, if you serve as a member of a nonprofit board, such as a community group or organization, even though you may receive no compensation for this position, you would be considered an office holder, and would report your position here.
Q: Regarding the Statement of Financial Interests Form (SFI) filing for Candidates running for office, who, when and where should they file?
A: Candidates for Statewide offices, which includes State Senate, State House, Supreme Court, Superior Court, Common Pleas Court, Traffic Court, Municipal Court and Commonwealth Court: The original copy of the SFI form must be filed with the State Ethics Commission, and a copy must be appended to the nomination petition when filed with the State Bureau of Elections. This must be completed on or before the last day for filing a petition to appear on the Ballot for Election.
Q: Must a school district employee with duties that include recommending equipment purchases file Statements of Financial Interests pursuant to the Ethics Act, or is the filing requirement only limited to school directors, superintendents and solicitors?
For Constables / Deputy Constables: The original copy must be filed with the State Ethics Commission, and a copy must be appended to the nomination petition when filed with the County Board of Elections. This must be completed on or before the last day for filing a petition to appear on the Ballot for Election.
For Countywide, City, Borough, Township or Municipality candidates (home rule charter): The original copy must be filed with the Clerk/Secretary in the Municipality in which you are a candidate, and a copy must be appended to the nomination petition when filed with the County Board of Elections. This must be completed on or before the last day for filing a petition to appear on the Ballot for Election.
For Magisterial District Judges candidates: The original copy must be filed with the County in which the Magisterial District is located, and a copy must be appended to the nomination petition when filed with the County Board of Elections. This must be completed on or before the last day for filing a petition to appear on the Ballot for Election.
For School Director candidates: The original copy must be filed in the School District where you are a candidate, and a copy must be appended to your nomination petition when filed with the County Board of Elections. This must be completed on or before the last day for filing a petition to appear on the Ballot for Election.
For Announced Write-ins, Unannounced Write-in Winners of Nominations, and Unannounced Write-in Winners of Elections: For state office, file with the State Ethics Commission. For county or local office, file with governing authority of political subdivision. No additional copy is required to be filed. This must be completed within 30 days of official certification of having been nominated or elected unless such person declines the nomination or office within that time frame.
A: Yes. Although school directors, superintendents and solicitors certainly are subject to the filing requirement--as would assistant superintendents, school business managers, and principals--the filing requirement is not limited to only these positions.
Because status as a public employee is determined based upon duties and authority rather than job titles, and because positions and duties may vary greatly from one school district to another, it is not feasible to create one listing of all school district positions subject to the filing requirement. Rather, the duties and authority of each position must be considered to determine status as a public employee.
An employee with duties including recommending equipment purchases would typically fall within the definition of “public employee” and would be subject to the requirements for filing Statements of Financial Interests.
Q: Is a judge who is a candidate for election to a judicial seat required to file the Statement of Financial Interests form as a candidate under Section 1104(b) of the Ethics Act?
A: Yes. The Commonwealth Court decision of In re: Nomination Petitions of James H. Owen, 922 A.2d 973 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007) held that members of the judiciary who are candidates for a new seat on the bench (not incumbent) are required to file Statements of Financial Interests in conformance with Section 1104(b) of the Ethics Act.
Conflicts of Interest:
Q: What are the restrictions regarding contracting for Public Employees and Public Officials?
A: The restrictions for contracting are set forth in Section 1103(f) of the Ethics Act which prohibits a public official/ public employee or his/her spouse, child, or any business the official/employee, spouse or child is associated with, from entering into a contract (or subcontract) valued at $500 or more with the governmental body of the public official/employee unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process. An open and public process is not necessarily competitive budding, but at a minimum includes prior public notice and subsequent public disclosure of all proposals considered and contracts awarded.
Q: What does the 1-year “Revolving Door” provision of the Ethics Act prohibit?
A: Section 1103(g) of the Ethics Act (Revolving Door) prohibits a former public official/public employee from representing a person (including themselves) for compensation before the official/employee’s former governmental body for one year after the official/employee leaves service. The term “person” and “represent” are broadly defined and would include a former employee returning as an independent contractor. Caution should be taken when one considers leaving public service and engaging in any business ventures with a former governmental entity.
Q: Are there any exceptions allowing a public official with a conflict of interest under the Ethics Act to vote despite the conflict?
A: There are two voting conflict exceptions in Section 1103(j) of the Ethics Act. The exception for breaking a tie vote despite a conflict of interest is available exclusively to members of three-member governing bodies who first abstain and disclose their conflicts as required by Section 1103(j) of the Ethics Act. See, Pavlovic, Opinion 02-005. Therefore, the Section 1103(j) exception for breaking a tie vote despite a conflict of interest would not be applicable for a board containing more than three members. The other voting conflict exception is not limited to a three-member governing body but requires that the following conditions be met: (1) the board must be unable to take any action on the matter before it because the number of members required to abstain from voting under the provisions of the Ethics Act makes the majority or other legally required vote of approval unattainable; and (2) prior to voting, such members with conflicts under the Ethics Act must disclose their conflicts as required by Section 1103(j). When both of these conditions are met, such that the exception is applicable, the exception allows for voting only—it does not permit other forms of participation, such as discussing the matter that is the subject of the vote. Klutzaritz, Order 1078; Pavlovic, supra.
Q: What is a conflict of interest under the Ethics Act?
A: Under the Ethics Act, a conflict of interest exists when a person uses the authority of their public office/employment or confidential information received through their public office/employment, which is used for the private pecuniary benefit of the public official/public employee himself, any member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated. 65 Pa.C.S. §§ 1102, 1103(a). The term “business with which he is associated” is defined as “Any business in which the person or a member of the person’s immediate family is a director, officer, owner, and employee or has a financial interest.” 65 Pa.C.S. § 1102.
Q: How do I file an Ethics complaint or a Lobbying complaint with the Commission?
A: Complaint forms are available in the Forms Library. Paper forms are also available upon request from the State Ethics Commission. The complaint should state the name, job or office held by the subject of the complaint, and a description of the facts which are alleged to constitute a violation of either the Ethics Act or the Lobbying Disclosure Law. Complaints must be sworn before a notary public.
Q: If a public official/public employee violates the Ethics Act, can he “undo” the violation through remedial measures?
A: The Commission has held that “remedial measures,” such as to rescind a prior vote, DO NOT “undo” or negate a violation if such has occurred, but may be considered as mitigating circumstances when the Commission considers the imposition of an appropriate penalty or referral for criminal prosecution.
Q: Who may request an Advice/Opinion from the State Ethics Commission?
A: Under the Ethics Act, anyone who is subject to the Ethics Act may request an advisory about his or her own obligations. An advisory may also be requested by the authorized representative of such person or by the appointing authority or employer of such person.
Under the Lobbying Disclosure Law, a lobbyist, lobbying firm, principal, the Pennsylvania Department of State, a State employee, or the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania may request an advisory regarding compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Law. An advisory may also be requested by the authorized representative of the aforesaid individuals or entities.
Q: How does one request an Advice/Opinion from the Commission?
A: All requests must be in writing. Requests should be addressed as follows: State Ethics Commission, Attention: Legal Division, P.O. Box 11470, Harrisburg, PA, 17108-1470. At a minimum, the following information should be provided:
- Name, address and telephone number of the subject of the request and if different, the name, address and telephone number of the person initiating the request.
- Where applicable, the name of the governmental body with which the subject serves and the name or title of such person’s public office or position.
- If the requester is the appointing authority, employer or authorized representative of the subject of the request, the nature of such relationship.
- Where applicable, the nature of duties of the subject’s office or job. Include an organization chart, bylaws of the organization, if available, and a job description.
- List the material facts and circumstances surrounding the request.
Q: How is the request for an Advice/Opinion processed by the Commission, and will the Advice or Opinion be made public?
A: The Commission will advise within 14 days whether an Advice or Opinion may be issued. An Advice is issued by the Commission's Chief Counsel where Commission precedent, court cases, the Ethics Act, the Lobbying Disclosure Law, and/or Regulations provide the basis upon which to render such Advice. An Advice can usually be issued to a person within 21 working days of the Commission's receipt of the request. In some cases, however, the time may be extended. An Advice may be appealed to the full Commission.
If an Opinion will be issued by the Commission members, the requestor will be advised of the date, time, and place of the Commission meeting, at which the Opinion will be considered. The requestor may attend this meeting and make a presentation.
Q: What is the effect of an Advice/Opinion once issued by the Commission?
A: No person who acts in good faith on an Opinion that was issued to him by the Commission will be the subject of either criminal or civil penalties for acting in conformity with the language of the Opinion, provided that he truthfully disclosed all material facts in the Opinion requested.
An Advice issued by the Commission's Chief Counsel is a complete defense in any enforcement proceeding initiated by the Commission and if followed, is considered evidence of good faith conduct in any other civil or criminal proceeding.