Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Gifts to Lawmakers and Public Employees: Evolving Policies

California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) Executive Director Roman Porter talked with the Center's Public Sector Roundtable Feb. 26 about the provisions of the Political Reform Act of 1974 (Act) covering gifts to public officials and how interpretation and enforcement of those regulations are evolving. Also addressing the question of gifts were Karen Gorman, chief ethics officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Michael Martello, soon to be city attorney of Los Gatos, Calif.

"The rules haven't changed much," Porter said. Since the Act was passed, lawmakers have had to submit reports of any gifts they receive from a single source, totaling more than $50 in a month.

In February, the FPPC concluded a pro-active investigation by fining 42 state lawmakers and their staff for failing to report gifts they received from lobbyists' employers in 2008.

The FPPC, Porter said, is simply charged with ensuring compliance with the law. It's up to voters to decide if a gift is appropriate. For example, a gift of expensive sports tickets may be legal as long as it's reported. But the public may feel that an official who votes on tax exemptions for a new arena should not ethically accept gifts from the team.

The FPPC is also paying more attention to what are called "behested payments." These are payments made "principally for legislative, governmental, or charitable purposes at the behest of… an elected officer," according to the Commission. They must be reported when payments from a single source reach or exceed $5,000 in a calendar year.

Examples Porter cited ranged from $620 worth of frozen turkeys donated to a homeless shelter at the request of an official to $72,000 donated by a corporation to fix a soccer field in one politician's district. For one Constitutional Officer this type of support resulted in over $3 million in behested payments during 2009, alone.

Until recently it was difficult for the media and public to know these payments were happening. There was no standardized form to fill out, and reports were simply kept in binders at the FPPC offices in Sacramento. Porter has worked to improve transparency about these payments by creating a standard form for all elected officers to use throughout the state and posting the information from legislators and other statewide officials on the Commission's website.

Members of the roundtable reported that they had been required to report as "behested payments" the total dollar amount earned by a charitable organization from an event to which they had lent their names for the invitation.

Porter acknowledged that staff at the FPPC have debated how to create rules that treat such gifts fairly. The large majority of behested payments appear to be for charitable purposes and do good in the community. But the ethical question remains: Are individuals making these payments for the public good or are they attempts to gain influence with lawmakers?

The problem is particularly acute for officials who also serve on nonprofit boards, and in that volunteer capacity, fundraise for the institution. The consensus of the group was that it was not possible to separate a person's other daily activities from his or her role as an elected official.

Karen Gorman told the group about how the Los Angeles County MTA handles gifts to employees. The maximum value of such a gift must be less than $10 in any month. If the gift exceeds that amount, it must be given to charity. Gorman described MTA's system for collecting these gifts and distributing them to a selection of charities. The employee receives notification about where the gift was donated, and if the employee requests, the gift giver receives notification that the employee did not make personal use of the gift so there can be no expectation of quid pro quo.

Michael Martello, formerly city attorney for Mountain View, Calif., concluded the discussion by describing how that city handled the distribution of tickets from Shoreline Amphitheater, a venue that books major performers. In general, access to hot tickets can give city officials important advantages, not only in their own use of the tickets but also in their ability to hand them out as perks. Such a benefit favors incumbent office holders. Martello said that some Fair Boards, which control county fairs that can also feature major performers, will distribute as many as 20,000 tickets a day. In Mountain View, the modest number of tickets given to city officials is specified in the city's contract with Shoreline, and many of the tickets are given to city employees.

March 2010


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