Nutter quietly signs law limiting gifts to city workers

Posted: April 05, 2014

If any City Council or row office employees accepted cash or pricey gifts in the last couple of days, they could be in big trouble.

The new ethics code gifts regulation - which bans cash as gifts and limits the value of gifts to city officers or workers at $99 - was quietly signed into law by Mayor Nutter on Monday. It went into effect immediately.

The new law amends the city code's provision that prohibited gifts of "substantial economic value." The old standard was vague, and a precise limit, advocates of the bill have said, will make the law easier to enforce.

Most city employees were already covered under an existing executive order that prohibits anyone in the executive and administrative branches from soliciting or accepting any gift from anyone whose interests may be affected by the employee's official duties. It was the employees working for the other branches of municipal government - City Council and the row offices - who did not have defined limits.

Council passed the bill unanimously last month after the Board of Ethics struggled with creating regulations to make the law more precise.

Some in council were surprised that the mayor, whose initial mayoral campaign and time in office has focused on ethics reform, did little to celebrate the bill's passage.

The passage of the stricter gifts rule comes at a time when the legislature is looking to ban lawmakers from accepting cash gifts from lobbyists and others with interests in state government. That effort is a result of The Inquirer's reporting that five Philadelphia Democrats, including four House members, were recorded accepting money or gifts from a lobbyist.

"Given the outrage over allegations in the sting operation, it's a sigh of relief that cash gifts to city employees are strictly prohibited," said Ellen Kaplan, vice president of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

On Thursday, after acknowledging that he had approved the city ethics bill after being asked by a reporter, Nutter said he might still hold a ceremonial signing of the bill.

"We haven't gotten that far in the conversation," Nutter said. But added that it was an important bill that he supported from the start.

Nutter signed his executive order in 2011, which sets a higher bar by banning all gifts outright.

Under the executive order, if a city resident bakes cookies for trash collectors, those employees are expected to let the baker know that they are just doing their job and can't accept gifts. The workers can, however, "bring [them] back for the whole office," the city's chief integrity officer, Hope Caldwell, said.

Unless the next mayor retains Nutter's executive order, all city employees will be governed by the new gifts rules. With the limit set at $99, most cookies would be OK to accept.

Caldwell said she would be making extensive outreach to city departments to make sure everybody understands the rules.

Nutter declined to comment on the Harrisburg sting, saying: "I don't know enough about that particular matter."

Asked whether the offering of cash and gifts is common and whether he has had to decline gifts that would violate the code, Nutter looked bewildered.

"You can't be serious," Nutter said. "No one has ever offered me anything inappropriate."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|