making local government more ethical

Dating, Marrying, and Gifts

Government ethics is dangerous to dating and weddings. That's the message of an article in Sunday's Palm Beach Post.

Because the proposed amendment to the Palm Beach County ethics code's gift provision, just like the current provision (§2-444), does not make an exception for people who are dating, a sanitation worker dating an employee of a county vendor could not accept more than $100 a year from the vendor employee. Therefore, they would have to go dutch until they got married.

And if they did get married, every county employee invited to the wedding would have to pay the couple the per-person cost of the wedding less the wedding gift less $100.

There are two problems here. One is that all employees of those doing business with the county are included. This is excessive. Generally, a gift provision applies only to principals and officers of a company, not all of its employees. Yes, a company could use its employees as conduits for its gifts, but this can be taken care of by prohibiting gifts made indirectly.

The second problem is that there is no general waiver provision in the Palm Beach County ethics code, which would allow, say, a county employee dating the president of a county vendor to request from the ethics commission that personal gifts from his girlfriend be excepted from the prohibition. If the employee was involved in procurement, he would have to withdraw from involvement in any matter involving the contractor anyway, so gifts would not be seen as buying his support. If the employee was not involved in procurement, the contractor would have no politically corrupt reason to give gifts to him. So, in either case, a waiver would be reasonable, so long as the procurement employee agreed to fully withdraw.

What if these two lovebirds decided to get married, and they wanted to invite some county employees to their wedding? The contractor could obtain a waiver for the event. But it would be reasonable for the ethics commission to refuse a waiver for a procurement officer or, better, require as a condition for the waiver that the procurement officer, as a friend close enough to be invited to the wedding, withdraw from matters involving the contractor.

What these concerns point to is the importance of having not only a waiver provision, but also an ethics officer who can quickly provide straightforward advice and waivers. The EC could deal with more complex advice and waivers. The ethics officer could be a staff member, a consultant, or a specially trained EC member. The position should not be held by a government attorney, because most city and county attorneys are politically involved and represent the very people they would be asked to enforce the ethics code against.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics