Stricter gift ban proposed in Council

Posted: February 01, 2014

PHILADELPHIA A bill introduced Thursday in City Council would, for the first time, ban most cash gifts to city officials and employees from anyone except family members.

The legislation, sponsored by all 17 Council members, would replace a decades-old ethics law that many say is vague and difficult to enforce.

While barring cash gifts, the bill would allow city officials and employees to accept gifts up to a total of $99 in value per year from any one source. It lists exceptions - such as hospitality in someone's house, and free attendance at an event celebrating a major life event of another individual, such as a wedding.

The proposed cash ban and $99 limit would apply to gifts from people who have "a financial interest at the time, or in close proximity to the time, the gift is received, which the Council member, officer, or employee is able to substantially affect through official action."

Calling the bill a "step in the right direction," the city's chief integrity officer, Joan Markman, praised Council's move on the matter but said much discussion remained before the bill becomes law.

She said she hoped the final version would more closely resemble Mayor Nutter's 2011 executive order barring people in his administration from accepting gifts. "This is not the last word," said Markman, who is stepping down because of illness. Nutter's legislative staff will continue her work on the issue.

The proposal follows months of debate among officials and watchdog groups over a gift rule. Since September, the Board of Ethics has attempted to draft regulations to apply to the vague section in the City Code that deals with the subject. Suggested limits on the total value of nonfamily gifts received from any one source in a year ranged from as little as $50 to as high as $250.

The big point of contention has been cash.

Initially, the Ethics Board staff and its executive director, Shane Creamer, citing advice from the city Law Department, said the code's wording made it impossible to set a cash limit at zero. But Creamer said the department revisited the matter this month and informally advised the Ethics Board that cash could be banned.

As recently as Jan. 15, the board was considering limiting gifts to $50 total value and banning cash. If Council passes its ordinance - which appears likely, in light of the sponsor list - the board would have to start over in crafting detailed regulations.

Even so, Creamer said, the bill "is far clearer than the current law."

Some ethics advocates, such as Committee of Seventy vice president Ellen Kaplan, still want a $50 gift limit. "Gifts above that . . . are meant to influence official behavior," she said.

Why the higher limit in the bill? "They compromised on the $100 gift," primary cosponsor Marian B. Tasco said of her Council colleagues. "Philosophically, I'm someplace else." She declined to elaborate.

The $99 cap would put the city on par with Los Angeles, which has a $100 gift limit. Chicago's and New York's are $50.

"I don't see a significant difference between $50 and $100," said Councilman Bill Green, a key sponsor. "The whole point here is to create bright-line rules for city employees that make it very clear and simple to follow."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-815-1953 @InqCVargas

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