With Christmas just around the corner, Americans are getting into the gift-giving mood. Most of us only have a few occasions every year when we can expect to receive gifts. But for politicians, public officials and lobbyists, gift-giving is a year-round practice, and one that often treads close to an ethics violation.
For members of state government , gifts often come in the form of a trip bought and paid for by a lobbyist or advocacy group. Those gifts can go straight to the public official, but on occasion, they go to an official’s family member instead.
For example, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat now in his second term , revealed in his 2009 disclosure report that his wife Ginger had received round-trip airfare from Little Rock to St. Louis, valued at $250. Ginger Beebe’s trip was paid for by Clark Mason, a Little Rock-based attorney. The reason for Beebe’s trip is not explained in the disclosure form. In 2010, when two Arkansas judges recused themselves from hearing a lawsuit, Governor Beebe named two lawyers to take their place; one of them was Clark Mason.
That same year, Ginger Beebe accompanied Mike (pictured, right) on an eight-day economic development trip to Europe. The tab for Ginger Beebe’s trip, which cost $3,710 total, was paid for by the Arkansas Economic Development Program.
Each state enforces varying levels of regulation and disclosure of gifts. The most extreme form of regulation is the “no cup of coffee” rule, which exists in a handful of states and bars state officials from accepting any gift – including a single cup of coffee – from a lobbyist, or a person who employs lobbyists. In the run-up to last week’s gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, all three major candidates, including the incumbent governor and eventual winner Steve Beshear, said they would support a “no cup of coffee” law.
John Schaff, counsel to the Kentucky Ethics Commission, said Kentucky already has relatively strict laws governing gift disclosure, thanks to a scandal in the early 1990s.
“Lobbyists were leaving their credit cards at local restaurants and telling legislators, ‘Just charge it to me,’” Schaff said.
Under Kentucky’s current rules, legislators are barred from receiving any non-food gifts from lobbyists, and lobbyists are required to make full disclosure of food and drink gifts. With those rules in place, Schaff says legislators are discouraged from accepting much of anything, because “no legislator wants to be seen as having a meal with a lobbyist.”
According to Schaff, the ethics commission has made the “no cup of coffee” recommendation to the legislature for several years running. Recalling the 1990s scandal that led to the Kentucky’s present laws, he said it usually takes a major embarrassment to force a change in state ethics.
“Typically,” Schaff said, “the only way you get real change in ethics laws is when you have a scandal of some sort.”