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Her Honor

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Most Gifts Come With Strings Attached

Monday, Nov. 14, 2011

What is your gift threshold? Would you accepta $12 meal? Would you turn down an offer to take a ride at an amusement park if you knew the value was $150? How about taking advantage of free parking offered by an athletic foundation worth $1,200?

The question of “gifts and freebies” accepted by some elected officials in South Carolina made news recently, and the fraction of legislators and councilmembers who took gifts was clearly outnumbered by the public servants who just said “no” to similar offers. According to The Sun News, of the 68 state legislators and sitting members of county council and city councils, 16 of them have reported taking gifts from businesses, constituents, and agencies. The total amount filed on economic disclosure forms is $46,507.

Reasons for turning down gifts varied:" I pay my own way so I don’t have to worry about conflicts or questions.” One legislator who accepted more than $11,000 in gifts said “the decision to accept a gift comes down to common sense,” and argues that refusing some gifts could send the message "you've been very indignant." And while he uses a “token gift” of a letter opener as an example, he has also accepted a golf and beach club membership worth $2,520.

Speaking at a Markkula Center Public Sector Roundtable recently, Michael Martello, former Mountain View, CA city attorney, predicted an even greater emphasis on the ethics of gifts, especially with the current focus of the influence of lobbyists.

As a previous officeholder and current senior fellow at an applied ethics center, I have repeatedly reminded public servants that accepting a gift gives the public the appearance that the gift is being given for one of two reasons-- in exchange for a favor done or in anticipation of a favor. Accepting freebies, even if they are only of “token” value, can damage credibility and public trust.

For more on ethics and gifts, visit the government ethics page of the Center’s Web site: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/government_ethics/

Tags: freebies, gifts

 
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