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Phila. Ethics Board Moves Closer To Specific Bans on Gifts For City Employees

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(Philadelphia City Hall.  File photo by Tony Hanson)

(Philadelphia City Hall. File photo by Tony Hanson)

Mike Dunn Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn is City Hall bureau chief for KYW Newsradio 1060. He covers...
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By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics is just weeks away from setting limits on the value of gifts that can be accepted by city employees.

Not only is the city’s 50-year-old law currently covering such gifts quite vague, but it fails to set specific limits on the value of gifts that city workers can accept.

“It is an abstract rule that has been interpreted on an ad hoc basis over the years,” says Shane Creamer, executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics.

Creamer says various mayoral administrations have placed their own limits on gifts.

“Ever since the gift rule was enacted in the early 1960s, through various solicitor opinions over the decades, and more recent Board (of Ethics) decisions, it’s been within $200-300,” Creamer tells KYW Newsradio.

But now the Board of Ethics is concluding months of debate over what Creamer says would be the first regulations setting specific limits for everyone to understand.

“We’re trying to transfer that abstract rule into concrete terms, so everybody knows where the boundaries are,” he says.

The ethics board next month is expect to approve limits that are lower than earlier interpretations of the gift law, which pleases Ellen Kaplan of the political watchdog group Committee of 70.

“The people who work for city government and whose salaries you fund with your tax dollars are not (under the proposed regulations) permitted accept cash at all, or accept any non-monetary gifts (valued at) over fifty dollars,” she notes.

And she says the Committee of 70 is pleased with those much lower limits.

“To bring it down to fifty dollars, no more than fifty dollars, is a huge step,” she says.

A mixed reaction comes from the Nutter administration, according to chief integrity officer Joan Markman:

“The administration is very pleased and in fact thrilled that the Ethics Board has seen fit to outlaw any monetary (cash or check) gifts.”

But Markman says the proposed regulations fail to clarify the difference between gifts and gratuities, and that lack of clarity undermines the entire effort.

“The regulation, even still as written today, would be worse than passing no regulation at all,” Markman says.

Creamer admits that the proposed language could end up failing to catch some “bad” gifts while catching some benign ones.  But on the whole, he believes, the regulations will be effective.

“You just want to stop the pernicious gift, the bad gifts that might unduly influence official decisions,” he says.

The board is expected to cast a final vote on the gift regulations at its February 19th meeting.

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