FPPC Not Totally Wed To Gift Bans

NOV. 15, 2010

The traditional start of the Christmas shopping season is just around the corner, so I guess it makes sense that the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has decided to redo some of its gift-related regulations. Unfortunately, it’s not likely they’re going to be very successful in the never-ending battle to keep special interests from unduly influencing public officials.

“[S]taff has discovered some internal inconsistencies in the gift regulations that need to be addressed,” stated an Oct. 20 memo from FPPC attorneys William J. Lenkeit and Scott Hallabrin to the commissioners, which discussed the new regulations (but took no action) at the Nov. 12 FPPC hearing. “[S]ome of the regulations have not been reviewed in years and are antiquated or in need of updating.”

This is a topic that gets a lot of press. The Nexis databases shows 398 hits over just the last 90 days when search for the terms “public official” and “gift.”

The FPPC is thinking about slightly expanding the list of relatives “from whom an official may receive something without it being a reportable gift,” according to the Oct. 20 memo (click here to read the current FPPC instructions to public officials regarding the reporting of gifts). “The amendment clarifies that aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews includes grand aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews and also that ‘spouse’ includes ex-spouse.”

What’s more, the commission is considering changing the regulations so that “an individual who brings a gift to a wedding (or other event) will not have to claim a gift for the benefit he or she received in attending the event unless the benefit received was substantially greater in value than the gift presented.”

Wait, it gets better. “With regard to weddings, Section 89503(e)(2) exempts wedding gifts from the gift limits, which means the official only has to report those gifts,” states the memo from Lenkeit and Hallabrin. “However, if the official’s wedding is held in the home of an individual, staff previously advised that the benefit may not be reportable at all due to the home hospitality exemption. This regulation now changes that advice and such events would no longer qualify for the ‘home hospitality’ exception.”

This seems to be a reference to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s on-again, off-again marriage to the former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. They were to be married Sept. 4, and have their wedding dinner and dance at wealthy, powerful Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos’ mansion, but abruptly nixed the plan back in August. “By canceling it, the mayor has avoided at least the appearance of conflict of interest, and political heartburn for himself,” the Sacramento Bee opined on Aug. 26.

Of course, as every reporter knows, defining an “appearance of conflict” is asking for an argument because, ultimately, doing so is an attempt to jam officials – who are all different – into a very tight, uniform box. For this reason, what the FPPC is trying to do is pretty close to impossible, as one municipal official noted earlier this month.

“The Commission is essentially tasked with quantifying ‘ethical behavior,’ a particularly non-quantifiable concept,” San Mateo City Attorney Shawn M. Mason wrote to the FPPC on Nov. 4. “We share your interest in defining appropriate conduct for local government officials in a way that is simple, straightforward, and easily comprehended by those who are willing to step forward in service to their communities.”

The goal here is to keep public officials honest and accountable to the elected representatives who appointed them, or to the voters who elected them. Attempting to stop the age-old practice of buying officials off with gifts is a worthy, necessary goal, but we must never forget that it will probably always just be a goal.

In any case, an FPPC spokesperson said the commission will take action on the new gift rules at its next hearing, scheduled for Dec. 9.

-Anthony Pignataro

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