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Bill Britt: A question of ethics

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

The vagaries of Alabama’s ethics laws has generated endless headlines as it pertained to teachers. But little has been written or discussed publicly on the effect it has had on local government officials. Of course, few things in our state will generate more press, wailing and gnashing of teeth than any law, comment or castigation of teachers.

Meanwhile, mayors, county commissioners and others are left to decide what is and what is not a violation of the new ethics law. This is especially true when it comes to gifts. There is of course a simple remedy to the question of gifts for all state employees and government officials. The answer is so simple it seems to elude even the most erudite attorneys and lawmakers.

The general idea of ethics laws are to keep those in government and those who deal with the government honest. On its face, this should be a uncomplicated task, but in practice it requires a very sophisticated set of rules. Government and its bureaucracy left to polices itself will over time become a complex organization of systematized corruption.

This is because men and women are immoral by nature. One of the reasons that humans take so long to reach adulthood is because time is required to socialize them into society as productive members. Children are not good by nature and only a child psychologist from a liberal institution of learning would promote such intellectual dishonesty. So, when dealing with ethics in government it is incumbent to think of the flawed beast and not the benevolent brother or sister. Ethics laws may wish to “preserve and promote the integrity of public officials and political institutions,” as Jimmy Carter said in praising the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, but the doing of it is a never-ending job.

For some politicians lying, insincerity, subterfuge and political self-interest are but coins of the realm.

So, it is that if the legislature wants to impose ethics laws then they must have specificity that can easily be understood. As for making laws for the long term, well, that is another thing altogether.

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Let’s think about specificity. Under the current law a pubic official (we will disregard public employees like teachers for now) may receive a gift of “de minimis” value. An opinion rendered by the Alabama Ethics Commission states, “Items such as plaques, certificates and other presentation items have no value to anyone other than the recipient of the award. Promotional items, such as coffee cups, ball caps, etc., have little or no monetary value and exist for the purpose of advertising, public relations, goodwill, etc. On the other hand, gifts such as turkeys and hams given as seasonal gifts, do have a monetary value. Due to the fact that the exception for seasonal gifts was removed from the Ethics Law during the Special Session, it is the Commission’s opinion that the practice of giving turkeys, hams, etc. to public officials during the holiday season is no longer permissible.”

Here the only quantifier the Commission will put on what is and what is not de minimis is whether or not the item has any resale or monetary value. The legality of a gift according to the commission seems to rest on the term de mininis with regards to an item’s value.

This is a extremely unclear message, is it ok to give a ball cap with 14 carat gold pipping?

Is it permissible to give a $ 300 dollar cashmere scarf as long as it has a company logo on it?

While this may seem extreme, it is well within reason for someone to think these may be acceptable.

Why is it that the law would even use a Latin phrase? Are there not plain English words that would convey the same meaning?

English is the defacto language of the world, why not use it?

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Ethics can be a very complex issue because it deals with codes of conduct by a particular people, group or institution.

When it comes to ethic in government the public trust is a paramount issue. Gift giving to a government official or, for that matter, a government employee should be met with the question of why. Why should any government officer or public employee be given a gift?

Inherent in gift giving to public office holders is the question of motivation, why is the gift being bestowed on this individual? If company X wants to give Senator Y a gift what is the motivation? Even if charity Z wants to give Representative W a plaque is there not an element that suggest something has been exchanged.

Are public servants so in need of accolade that they must be swarmed with tributes and offerings of gratitude?

The simple answer to gifts in the public sphere is to do away with them all together.

The Apostle Paul cautioned to not give even the appearance of evil.

It is not extreme to say, “Being allowed to serve my state is gift enough for me.”

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Of course this will not be the case because people would think such a statement was insincere, because we have lost faith in public service and public servants.

It is understandable that people want to say thank you by gift giving but if a company that has business with the government or a charity that relies on the good grace of the government give a gift or an award there is always a tinge of something amiss.

There are greater areas of ethical concern facing our state than gifts. I will refrain from comment on the unreasonable turmoil surrounding gifts for teachers.

While we are bogged down over something so simple, the bigger issues go unaddressed and are perhaps beyond our ability to legislate.

Such as why do officials still make the most important public decisions in secret meetings? Should a state legislator represent the wishes of the majority in their district even when the laws they enact are fundamentally wrong? Should office holder appoint a family member or church member to his or her cabinet if the appointee is the best person for the job? What if they are not the best person for the job?

Of course, most ethical issues are only addressed once a crisis occurs. It would be refreshing if ethical issues simple and complicated were given thoughtful consideration without a crisis mentality. We need for lawmakers to give reasoned consideration to the varying dilemmas. This is hardly above the pay grade of many in office, the larger issue is the will to make real reform rather than just making things different than they were under the other guys.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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