Philly ethics board proposal allows $200 limit on gifts

Philadelphia City Hall from S. Broad Street. July 2013. Reid Kanaley / Staff
Philadelphia City Hall from S. Broad Street. July 2013. Reid Kanaley / Staff
Posted: October 18, 2013

If a proposed list of regulations is approved by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, a City Council member would be allowed to accept Eagles tickets and dinner from a lobbyist as long as the total value didn't exceed $200.

That same Council member could also accept, say, a $100 vase from a city vendor.

And the gifts and dinner could keep on coming - as long as the total from any one source was less than $200 per year.

The Board of Ethics has drafted a lengthy list of regulations that are supposed to better explain what is and is not allowed under the current city code for "gifts, loans, and favors to city personnel."

The document would allow city officers and employees to accept gifts of up to $200 in value per year from any single source, including cash payments of up to $50. (The rules make exceptions for gifts from close relatives.) But gratuities of any kind would be prohibited - such as city workers accepting tips for their city work.

The board's executive director, Shane Creamer Jr., said the board was simply adding specifics to what he described as "an abstract rule" created decades ago and enforced only on an ad-hoc basis.

"In the past, officials could take multiple gifts from a single giver, like four or five $100 meals from one person," Creamer said. "The new aggregation interpretation will prevent that."

Some city watchdogs argued that the gift limits were being set too high.

By comparison, New York City's ethics law limits annual gifts to $50 from any person or firm that does or intends to do business with the city. But Creamer and Ethics Board chair Michael Reed said Wednesday that New York had a large loophole for gifts given by friends - and that it only prosecuted egregious violations of the gifts rule.

Creamer also noted that more than a handful of states cap gifts to government officials at $200 or even more.

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, vice president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, has been critical of the recent regulation drafts that have come before the board. She doesn't think the proposals are strict enough.

"The city's gift rule should reflect an unmistakable message, like the mayor's executive order does, that city employees should not be accepting and should certainly not be soliciting ... any gifts, cash, Wedgwood bowl, vase, from anybody they interact with on their job," Kaplan said.

She was referring to Mayor Nutter's order that covers the executive and administrative branch in prohibiting acceptance of any gift from anyone seeking business with the city or whose operations are regulated or inspected by the city. Nutter's order "dies when he leaves office," Kaplan said. "We don't know what the next mayor will do."

Ethics Board member Phyllis Beck agreed, saying that as a retired Superior Court judge, she did not think city workers should receive any gifts.

"As a public employee, there was no need to buy me lunch or even a cup of coffee," Beck said during the meeting. She also expressed frustration at the cash language, as did others.

Creamer said cash was used as a gift sometimes and therefore must be included in the regulations. "If we had zero dollars, how is that substantial economic value?" he said, adding, "If we had a rule that said no cash, fine." But there isn't such a rule.

A hearing on the proposed regulations is scheduled for Nov. 20.

"After we hear from the public," Ethics Board member Sanjuanita Gonzalez said at Wednesday's meeting, "we might say, 'Forget it. Forget the $200. It's ridiculous.' "

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