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Governmental Ethics & Lobbying


Lobbying, simply the act of trying to influence a governmental decision, is a normal part of government. However, to avoid corruptive behavior, rules are in place to disclose their activities and prevent bribery.

Whether you work in government or are engaged in lobbying, this guide takes you through some of what you need to know to act ethically.

In cases where there is a discrepancy between this summary and the law, the law governs.

What Is Lobbying?

Lobbying is the act of trying to influence city officers and employees on behalf of someone else.
This means that a group of San Franciscans calling their Supervisor to clean up a street is not lobbying. But if that group pays someone to advocate for them, that would be lobbying.

There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. However, lobbying can corrupt the public process if done improperly.

The Ethics Commission oversees the activities of lobbyists. Lobbyists must register with the Ethics Commission and disclose certain information. This is to help the public understand what lobbyists are doing to influence our government.

More trainings and information about lobbying can be found on the Ethics Commission’s website.

Lobbyists’ Responsibilities

Lobbyists must:

  • Register with the Ethics Commission.
  • Complete online trainings every year.
  • File a disclosure report every month describing who they contacted, on whose behalf, and about what.
  • Document and maintain information to substantiate lobbying activity for five years

Lobbyists are prohibited from:

  • Making campaign contributions to elected officials at the agencies they are registered to lobby, or have been registered to lobby in the last 90 days.
  • Making campaign contributions to candidates running for office at the agencies they are registered to lobby, or have been registered to lobby in the last 90 days.
  • Collecting contributions from others and give them to officials (a practice known as “bundling”) at the agencies they are registered to lobby.
  • Give gifts of any value, including gifts of travel, to City officers.
  • Give City officers or their families gifts through other people.
  • Lobby a current or former client they represented as a campaign consultant.

Who Qualifies As A Lobbyist? 

There are three types of lobbyists:

  • Contact Lobbyists
  • Expenditure Lobbyists
  • Lobbyists on Behalf of the City

Here’s what each one does:

Two people having a meeting

Contact Lobbyist

This is what most people think of when they think of a lobbyist. These are individuals (or groups of individuals) that reach out to government officers to influence a decision or process. They can work on their own, or as part of a firm.
A person will  qualify as a Contact Lobbyist if they:

  • Make five paid lobbying contacts with City officers in a calendar month on behalf of his or her employer, or
  • Make one paid lobbying contact with a City officer on behalf of a client.

Learn more about Contact lobbyists on the Ethics Commission’s website.

Expenditure Lobbyist

This describes an attempt to influence the government by trying to urge others to contact the government. To be considered an expenditure lobbyist, at least $2,500 would need to be spent in a calendar month.

An example: a group of residents bought an ad in a newspaper to encourage people to call an official to vote a certain way.
If, instead of buying ads, the residents in the above example spent $100 printing out flyers for the same issue, they would not count as Expenditure Lobbyists.

You can learn more about Expenditure Lobbyists on the Ethics Commission’s website.

Lobbyists on Behalf of the City

The City & County of San Francisco hires lobbyists to advocate for its interest before other governmental entities, whom you can learn more about on the Ethics Commission’s website.

What’s a Permit Consultant?

Working through the City’s systems can be tough. Whether you are just trying to get a permit for a home repair or for a major construction project, extra help could be useful.

A Permit Consultant can be hired to help navigate the City’s systems. Specifically, it includes contacting the Department of Building Inspection, the Entertainment Commission, the Planning Department, or the Department of Public Works to help a permit applicant obtain a permit.

A Permit Consultant is not necessary a Lobbyist, though an individual can be both. Permit Consultants must file with the Ethics Commission

City Gifts Rules

  • City officials can not accept gifts for doing their jobs. Accepting or asking for gifts for providing City services, assistance, advice, or anything related to our City jobs is prohibited.
  • City officials can not accept or ask for gifts from the people they manage.
  • If a restricted source gives you a gift, don’t accept it! Restricted sources include contractors or someone who seeks to contract with your department. This includes anyone who has tried to influence you in any legislative or administrative action in the past 12 months.
A person refusing a gift.

Form 700 filers:
In addition to the rules above, if your level of decision-making authority requires you to disclose your financial interests on Form 700, more gift rules apply.

Visit the Ethics Commission Resource Page for Form 700 filers for more information about gift limits and disclosures.

The City’s gift laws are comprehensive, can apply in a wide range of scenarios, and can also have some common exceptions. So, the most important rule is: seek guidance before accepting a gift to avoid violating the law.

Don’t hesitate to ask – the Ethics Commission is here to assist you! Visit the Ethics’ Commission webpage on Gifts and Travel for more information or contact us at 415-252-3100 or


Receiving payment for making a speech, publishing an article, attending a conference, convention, meeting, social event, meal, or similar is an “honorarium”.

The short version is this: if you are required to file a Form 700 (Statement of Economic Interests), you cannot take honorarium payments from any reportable source within your disclosure category.

This means that:

  • If you are in disclosure category 1, you can’t accept honoraria from anyone.
  • If you are in disclosure category 2, you can’t accept honoraria payments from any source if you are required to report income or gifts from that source on their Statements of Economic Interest.

Learn more about Honoraria restrictions and limited exceptions in the FPPC’s Limitations and Restrictions on Gifts, Honoraria, Travel and Loans Fact Sheet.


Gifts of travel are also subject to the City Gifts rules.

If you file a Form 700 (Statement of Economic Interests):

Generally, travel payment (including reimbursement) must be reported on your Form 700 as a gift or income.

If the travel payment is a gift, it is also normally subject to the $520 gift limit. If it is income, it may be considered an honorarium. In any case, you may need to disqualify yourself from any decision that could reasonably impact on whoever paid for your travel.

Learn more about travel restrictions, limitations, and exceptions in the FPPC’s Limitations and Restrictions on Gifts, Honoraria, Travel and Loans Fact Sheet.

If you are an elected officer

You must file the Gifts of Travel form before accepting any out-of-state travel gift paid by anyone other than the City and County of San Francisco, another governmental body, or a bona fide educational institution. Find out more details and fill out the Gifts of Travel form on the Ethics Commission Gifts and Travel page.

Political Donations

Local political donations are a more complicated if you work in or with the city. This is to reduce the chance that gifts don’t influence decision-making. It also helps prevent inappropriate pressure in the workplace.

If you fall into one of these groups, then additional rules apply to you:

  • If you’re a City officer or employee seeking donations
  • If you are seeking a permit
  • If you have or are seeking a contract
  • If you are seeking a Large Project Authorization

If you fall into these groups, you must generally be very careful about when (or even if!) donations can be made or even requested. If you think these rules might apply to you, read more in detail here! 

Behested Payments

What are “Behested Payments?”

A behested payment is one made (for example, to a non-profit) because of a request by a public official or employee to someone to make that payment. A “payment” can be cash, goods, or services.

Because these requests can raise ethical flags about fairness in governmental decision-making, the practice is regulated by both state and San Francisco laws.

Learn more about the limits on requesting Behested Payments on our website.

Sunshine Laws: Overview 

“Sunshine” rules are about transparency in government work. The public is entitled to a wide range of information.
Some information, like agendas and meeting content, must be provided proactively. Other information, like internal memos or emails by city staff, can be requested.
The Sunshine Task force oversees these rules. You can learn more about them, the laws they enforce, and your rights by visiting their website.

Reporting Violations

Waste, fraud, or abuse in City government? Report it!

You can file a confidential report through the Whistleblower Program. We can all do our part to make sure our government is fair and accountable.

You can report:

  • City funds used in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose,
  • Any dishonest activity by a City officer or employee,
  • Wasting money or inefficient government practices, and
  • Bad quality or poor delivery of City services.

Retaliation against someone who filed a Whistleblower complaint is prohibited.

Retaliation could mean firing someone or suspending them because they filed a complaint. It could also mean moving someone to a lower position or taking any action that affects their jobs in a negative way because they filed a complaint or because they cooperated in an investigation.

If you believe you are a victim of whistleblower retaliation, file a complaint with the Ethics Commission.

To contact an investigator, call the Ethics Commission at 415-252-3100 or visit the Ethics Commission’s complaint website

How Are Whistleblowers Protected?

People need to trust that if they report improper government activity, they won’t be a target for retaliation.

“Retaliation” could include being fired, demoted, suspended, or other similar actions against an employee.

If retaliation has occurred, the offender can face fines of $5,000-$10,000 as well as disciplinary actions. In addition, the retaliatory action could be reversed.

Learn more about retaliations and their penalties here.

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