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Ethics proposal bans most gifts

A "gift" is "anything of value" received by a public official or public employee, members of a blue ribbon task force on ethics agreed Monday. The definition is one of many proposals made by a task force appointed by Gov. Bob Martinez in July. They were directed to recommend laws to restrict what public officials can accept from lobbyists and others who do business with or are regulated by public agencies.

Their proposal would ban the solicitation or acceptance of most gifts, including the traditional weekends at Disney World, football game tickets and hunting trips when someone other than a relative is picking up the tab.

It also would ban the solicitation or acceptance of gifts by husbands, wives, children, siblings and business associates of public officials.

The recommendations come in the midst of investigations into trips that a number of legislators accepted from lobbyists and failed to report. Some legislators say they thought such trips were not considered gifts under state laws.

Task force members opted for language that would clearly establish all trips as gifts and ban all but those that serve a clearly defined public purpose.

Yielding to lobbyists who say drinks and dinner with legislators are a vital part of conducting business, the task force agreed to allow drinks and dinners up to $100 per person per occasion but banned the receipt of most other gifts from lobbyists or others who seek to influence government.

Members of the task force questioned the public purpose behind gifts to public officials, saying they do not promote good government. Members said such gifts give those who can afford to pay access to public officials that ordinary citizens lack.

Task force Chairman Richard Gilbert of Tampa initially had called for an absolute ban on all gifts but said Monday he thinks the recommendations are "a good first step."

"Gifts are so ingrained in this process that an outright ban would have met with no success," Gilbert said. "If this is adopted, gifts will become less and less a part of the process and can eventually be banned."

Gilbert's resignation as chairman of the State Ethics Commission earlier this year led Martinez to appoint the task force. Gilbert resigned in protest over the refusal of legislators to adopt legislation on ethics.

In addition to the 35,000 appointed and elected public officials who are currently covered by state laws relating to gifts and financial disclosure, the task force recommendation would extend to all public employees in the state, including city garbage collectors, school janitors and teachers.

Under the task force proposal, public officials and public employees still could accept:

Gifts from relatives or a fiance.

Informational material such as books or calendars valued at less than $100.

Food, flowers or other expressions of sympathy given as a result of death or illness.

Travel and lodging expenses for certain meetings where the official participates in a program.

Parking privileges that directly relate to public duties.

Honorary memberships in service or fraternal organizations.

Personalized plaques and trophies valued at less than $100.

Food and drink valued at less than $100.

Fact-finding trips with an educational or valid public purpose.

All allowed gifts worth more than $25 would have to be reported quarterly by public officials and the person who makes the gift.

The task force recommendations will go to Martinez for consideration.

Legislators already are considering alternatives in a joint committee that has been directed to produce a bill in time for an organizational session Nov. 20.

Legislative leaders say action is needed to clarify the law and restore public confidence in legislators.